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Hala Ayala, Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, tours Fredericksburg businesses
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Hala Ayala, Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, tours Fredericksburg businesses

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The teenage employees at Jus Pop’n, a gourmet popcorn shop in downtown Fredericksburg, were unaware they’d have a special visitor Thursday afternoon.

“This is going to be the first Black woman, Afro-Latina, to become lieutenant governor,” Del. Josh Cole of Fredericksburg said in introducing fellow Del. Hala Ayala, the Democratic candidate for Virginia’s second-highest office.

Ayala—who currently represents District 51 in Prince William County, is running for lieutenant governor against Republican nominee Winsome Sears in the November general election—visited five small businesses in downtown Fredericksburg Thursday as part of a mini-tour to learn how small and family-run businesses are recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to Jus Pop’n, Ayala visited LibertyTown Arts Workshop, Freddy Donuts, Flair Communication—a digital marketing agency—and Soup and Taco II.

The Virginia General Assembly is preparing to meet for a second 2021 special session Aug. 2, where a top priority for legislators will be allocating American Rescue Plan Act funds.

Virginia will receive a total of $7.2 billion in ARPA funds, with $4.3 billion going to the state and $2.9 billion directly to localities. Gov. Ralph Northam last week proposed spending $353 million of the state’s allocation on small business recovery.

“We’re going to continue to fight for these infrastructure dollars for our businesses,” said Ayala. “In the previous special session, we were trying to help everyone as quickly as possible. Now we’re trying to learn firsthand how these businesses were impacted, how they had to reinvent themselves and what we need to fight for going forward.”

Jus Pop’n is not only a small business, but a Black, female-owned business. It opened last summer in the middle of the pandemic at the corner of William and Princess Anne streets downtown.

The store is the passion and longtime dream of owner Carolyn Gipson. Visitors are greeted with the smell of caramel, which Gipson makes daily in a vat in a corner of the store using two pounds of fresh butter, five cups of brown sugar and a handful of secret ingredients.

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The caramel flavors several of Jus Pop’n’s 40-some gourmet popcorn flavors—both sweet and savory.

In addition to the physical location and online shop, Gipson tries to maintain a presence at community events such as last months’ FXBG Pride festival. On Thursday, she was preparing to bring in Benny Vitali’s pizza for the teenage workers to eat while packing bags of popcorn for several events this weekend.

Ayala said the work and love Gilpin has put into the shop is palpable.

“You walk in and you feel welcomed,” she said. “You see the love [staffers] feel for this place.”

At LibertyTown, Ayala toured the 40 studios—where local artists create and sell everything from visual art to jewelry to pottery to fiber art—and talked to owners D.D. and Kenneth Lecky, who purchased the business in 2014.

The Leckys told Ayala how they were able to navigate the pandemic by delivering “take-and-make” craft kits to quarantined families, hosting virtual personal shopping sessions and spending hours in the car transporting artwork to buyers.

They also discussed what they’re looking forward to as Fredericksburg opens back up—especially First Friday, when shops and galleries stay open late on the first Friday of every month.

Ayala said she worked to pass a bill—which went into effect July 1—that allows localities to apply for an Outdoor Refreshment Area license from the ABC. The license will permit customers to consume alcoholic beverages in public spaces within the ORA—meaning people will be able to patronize downtown restaurants, purchase beverages and take them along as they visit downtown shops and galleries.

“That’s going to be huge for an event like First Friday,” D.D. Lecky said. “When we had to apply for special event licenses to serve alcohol at First Friday, we always felt like we were taking money out of restaurant’s pockets.”

Ayala said this kind of common-sense but outside-the-box thinking is necessary to ensure that small, downtown businesses thrive in the post-COVID-19 world.

“We’re going to keep fighting for businesses,” she said.

Adele Uphaus–Conner:

540/735-1973

auphaus@freelancestar.com

@flsadele

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