What follows are anecdotes and observations compiled over two weeks after the Foothills Forum Survey landed in the mailboxes and post office boxes of the people of Rappahannock County:

On a five-point scale, 0 to 5 with 5 high, we’d rate the early, overall response from the diverse voices of Rappahannock a 3.5. Eventually, perhaps, a 4. We’d base that on a number of factors:

  • The survey professionals at the University of Virginia’s Center for Survey Research (CSR) enthusiastically report a steady flow of responses arriving daily in Charlottesville. We’ve been cautious about predicting a final response rate. It’s early still and this is a unique endeavor. There’s little comparable history.
  • Those response numbers came before last weekend. Many individuals told us they were waiting until the weekend to sit down, take the 12 minutes or so to fill it out (one survey per household) and return it. Take all the time you need to give thoughtful answers to the open-ended questions. But send it back!
  • As is routine with many surveys based on U.S. post office records, there are initially bad addresses and returned pieces of mail. The CSR folks are working to fix and update mailing records. We’ve fed all reports we’ve heard of bad addresses, incorrect names and “I didn’t get mine” cases to the CSR office.
  • The person named on the label, whenever possible, should complete the survey. The survey came to our house in my wife’s name. She asked my input, then filled it out. We heard funny examples of that, including the good-natured family politics of who completed the survey and whose opinion trumped others in the household. (No reports of divorces. Yet.) In other homes the survey was addressed to an ex-spouse, a parent, a child no longer living at home. What’s important is not who got one, but that every household received it.
  • To repeat: It’s still early! The final mailing from CSR, scheduled to arrive sometime next week, will be the same survey mailed to all non-responders. It’s a second chance in case you forgot, lost it, the dog ate it (or the goat did), or you initially trashed it. Now that you’ve seen that so many people in Rappahannock see the value in the survey, take advantage of the do-over and join them. If you disagree, send it back anyway.

And some may well disagree with our cautious optimism based on early returns. After all, we went into the survey well aware this won’t sit well with people who’ll never choose to opt in. Moreover, it won’t be until the survey’s final results are produced that we’ll really have a handle on where to begin the next round of Foothills’ mission — the research and reporting that’ll follow. Those roads will have their own potholes and detours; their own 0 to 5 scale.

The survey’s out there because dozens of people in Rappahannock asked for something like it. They helped start Foothills Forum to support research and reporting on the issues they care about. They volunteered, advised, took part in focus groups, opened their wallets. They said they wanted a factual, deeper understanding of the county’s future. They understand that the more reliable the information, the better the decisions to be made.

These same people are showing there’s an outsized appetite for real facts about many topics including taxes, schools, Internet access, jobs, housing, transportation, the environment, freedom. The survey will show what matters most.

Local people, been-heres and come-heres, invested time and money. The more they heard and read about having better research and enhanced reporting, the more they participated, willingly. Through the survey, they’re expressing interest in the real concerns of the many, not the few.

Rappahannock’s shown itself to accommodate the voices of many, including those who disagree or say we’re wrongheaded. Asking folks to participate in a questionnaire overseen by objective professionals has garnered praise, raised a few hackles, ginned up a robust conversation and, frankly, raised Foothills’ profile. That became especially apparent when we described the steps we’d taken to correct our tax status. We continue to share information about our status as a nonprofit organization here on the Foothills website.

We believe the back and forth helps to boost the return rate. We’ll see. Your discussions in church halls or online or at the theaters or outside Mayhugh’s or seated at Griffin Tavern accomplish the overall goal of community engagement in Rappahannock County.

We anticipate preliminary results early in the new year. Until then, we’ll continue to post info about the survey as well as our progress as a nonprofit here at foothills-forum.org (click on “About” and then “Facts About Foothills.”).