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HM’s 2016 People To Watch

Photographs by Turner Photography Studio

Matt Makowski sits down and gets to know a litttle bit about these five movers and shakers in Washington County who are looking to leave this place better than they found it.

Audrey VargasonAudrey Vargason

Director of Sales, Visit Hagerstown Conventions & Visitors Bureau

At just 24 years old, Audrey Vargason has quickly made a name for herself, but it wouldn’t be surprising if you’ve never heard her name. As the Director of Sales for Visit Hagerstown Convention & Visitors Bureau, Audrey spends a good chunk of her time elsewhere, convincing people and organizations that Hagerstown would be a perfect fit for their travel plans and events. While studying history with a focus on global studies at Hood College, she quickly learned upon graduation that her lack of Civil War knowledge was going to hinder her chances to land a job on the East Coast. She dove headfirst into books to help bolster up her degree, which landed her a part-time job at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, before dipping her toes in the private sector working as a service coordinator and then a sales and catering manager. All of these experiences added up perfectly for a job in her hometown persuading people to make a stop in Hagerstown.

Q: You’ve been with the Visitors Bureau for about a year and a half; how’s it treating you so far?
A: This is totally my dream job. I got a phone call (after my interview) and (my future boss) left a message saying, ‘I have a follow-up question, can you give me a call back?’ I thought this was gonna be a really important question, I can’t take it in the hotel where I was working, so I rushed out while I had events going on — it was the middle of December, so there were holiday parties going on. I finally get him on the phone and he says, ‘I’ve just got one quick follow-up question: Do you want the job’ I calmly say, ‘It would be a pleasure to accept.’ And then I hear this screaming in the background from Jolene and Betsy saying how happy they were. I’m a Christmas baby, and a lot of people have the misconception that we get gipped during the holidays, but that’s got to be one of the best birthday presents I’ve ever got.

Q: Who so far have you been focusing on to draw to Washington County?
A: We get a lot of people coming out for our recreation. There are a lot of unique opportunities here — especially with the Appalachian Trail, and our five national parks, our wineries. There’s Boonsboro and Nora Roberts, Hancock with the Rail Trail —personally, I can’t go to Hancock without getting a Blue Goose pie.

Q: How effective have your efforts been so far?
A: Our sales are measured by marketing numbers and what the hotels pull in. It’s not about how many accounts I opened this week. So you’re not going to see a lot of our work locally. I always tell people to keep a watch on I-70 for the motor coaches. Not all of them stop here, but large portions of them do.

Q: What’s the pitch? How are you working with others to come to Hagerstown?
A: When I go out and talk to the motor coach companies, or the convention and meeting planners, we’re primarily focused on finding a meeting space that is the right specifications. We look at their agenda, then we look at the hotel rooms they need. And we tend to try to get them to focus on events that are going on downtown, like the Blues Fest, to try and make their stay longer.

Q: What’s on your wish list for increasing tourism to Washington County?
A: Build a couple more fields for sports, a convention center, more hotel space…it’s gonna be hard, but we’ll take the challenge.

Q: You recently started volunteering with Relay for Life of Washingotn County. How’d you hook up with them?
A: Part of my job is to go outbound — I go to other destinations to sell this destination and spread brand awareness about Hagerstown. So I travel a good bit, and I can be on the road for weeks at a time. So I can’t always necessarily commit to always being here for an event. I met Laurie Fry, and she asked if I had any spare time and wanted to help…I showed her my schedule and I was gonna be out of town when the actual relay happens. I told her if there was anything I could help with on evenings on weeknights, let me know. It was a flexible opportunity. I just started with them doing email management, Facebook, and that kind of thing. And that’s nice because I can do that anywhere, any time.

Q: What’s your long view opinion of Washington County’s future?
A: I see a lot of growth — especially in the downtown area. Long-term, we have a nice young generation here, and we have a lot of families in Washington County, and I think these families are really interested in taking their kids out into the community and getting involved. And I think that’s what’s going to help our museums and historical sites grow and be preserved for future generations. We have a lot of value here, and I think the community sees that.

Whitney CarpenterWhitney Carpenter

Author, and Chief Operating Officer, Billwood Properties, LLC

Whitney Carpenter began her career as a waitress at Waffle House. As a kid, she had dreams of becoming a journalist, “but life just got in the way.” She is the quintessential “people person,” which served her well as a waitress, but even better once she started her company, Billwood Properties, LLC. One of 13 brothers and sisters, Whitney had to learn to share early in life, and has since made a living sharing everything she has learned about real estate investing. This mother of two daughters, recently published her first book The Passive Way to Passive Income, which teaches investors about turn-key investment strategies.

Q: When did you first start thinking of making the jump from waitress to investor?
A: My husband and I — before we were married — moved to Texas. We went down there to visit friends, and we thought, “Let’s stay here.” He left a good paying job, but we had money and it was really cheap to live there. We thought we were on top of the world. We came across a deal (on a property) that was owner-financed for 13 acres of land. We built a house on the land, and got it to the point where it was inhabitable, but this is right around 2009 when the recession hit. I was still at Waffle House, but we were having a hard time finding jobs.

Q: So it didn’t work out in Texas for you?
A: No. We ended up moving back up here with his parents. When we were staying with his parents, we were just trying to figure out a way to live affordably.

Q: What happened to the Texas property in the meantime?
A: We never recorded this deal as a deed of trust. So it was only a contract. They just said we breached our contract, and took the land with the improvement with it. We lost everything. He eventually cut us a check for $25,000 for the improvements made to the land, and that’s what we used to buy our first property here.

Q: So a job at Waffle House and a check for $25,000 was burning a hole in your pocket?
A: We ended up settling on a house for $25,500. That was our very first property. It took about four months to renovate the property paycheck-to-paycheck. We knew this house could definitely rent for $850 a month. That’s when we started looking into more investments. We used the equity in our house to purchase the next house, and just kept repeating that same process, until we replaced my income at Waffle House. It took three years.

Q: When you started this process, was quitting Waffle House a catalyst for going all in with Billwood Properties?
A: We were battling the everyday work and taking care of the kids, and also learning how to be real estate investors. That was a big challenge. But it was when my daughter was at daycare and she fell and hit her head. There was a medical emergency, and there was the issue of me working. That’s when I thought, ‘I have the income to be able to afford to take off for these moments,’ as opposed to working and missing out and not being able to be there.

Q: You’ve been involved in buying, selling, managing, and investing in more then 200 homes in the past seven years — not to mention writing a book — so obviously you have no problem staying busy, but do you have any other irons in the fire?
A: Right now, my biggest passion is Project Transition, which is a project I’m beginning for women in transitional homes — but really it’s for any woman who is in any hindering circumstance. We will offer resources to help them grow. We have a conference set up for October, and the program will start shortly after that. The basic makeup is it will be a nine-month program with various women I’ve met networking who will offer workshops to help people grow. There will be five categories: business, education, health and wellness, personal finances, and self-image. Some of the classes will be at HCC, and others at the business of the person hosting the workshop. The idea is to get the women outside their comfort zone, and see different places and facilities that they otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to.

Q: What are you most proud of since opening shop with Billwood Properties?
A: Over 60 percent of Hagerstown is renters. So for me it’s about letting people who don’t know anything about renting, educate them on being a regular renter — as opposed to subsidized housing — and then take the renters and turn them into homeowners; turn homeowners into investors; and investors into better investors. So for me, it’s ultimately to better the community and change mindsets.

Tim LuipersbeckTim Luipersbeck

Director of Member Services and Marketing, The Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce

Tim Luipersbeck was born and raised in Hagerstown, but when he graduated from Salisbury University, he thought, “The sooner I can move from this hometown of mine, the better!” Now 13 years later, his tune has changed quite a bit. “Time flies, but being able to look behind me and see that my work in Washington County has made a difference in my community is assuring. Working for the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce has not only increased my visibility among some key players, but it’s also afforded me opportunities to partner with various nonprofits on their Board of Directors.” When he’s not making sure chamber members are happy, he’s also a man about town who DJs at various clubs.

Q: Before landing a job as the director of member services and marketing at The Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce, you had a long tenure in various capacities with WHAG? What prompted the change in employment?
A: Before coming to the chamber, I worked at WHAG for nearly 12 years. I became friends with my predecessor, and she put a bug in my ear when she was moving on. I knew I wasn’t going to be moving up in my old job, and I wanted something new. And here I still have it where no two days are the same. I’m at a golf club one day, at a day camp another day, and a nursing home another day.

Q: So does that mean you’re not a fan of the idea of a desk job?
A: I like a balance. I’m not the kind of person who says I hate a desk job because that’s when you can get re-grounded and regroup and keep your sanity — I can shut my door and have some of those Zen moments. But I can also reach out to members and fill my day just by going out and meeting with some members to make sure they’re getting everything out of their membership.

Q: Aside from your 9-to-5, you seem to bounce around doing a lot of volunteer and fundraising events as well. How do you pick and choose what to commit to?
A: Both of my parents are cancer survivors. My dad battled leukemia back in ’97 — and he’s been in remission ever since. And my mom battled breast cancer almost three years ago, and she’s great now. But prior to that I lost an aunt, and a good friend to breast cancer, so October is really the point where I start to ramp up fundraising personally. So cancer events are what I typically limit it to.

Q: Does that consist of engaging in 5Ks and awareness walks, or other engagements?
A: I DJ too, so some of the bars I DJ at, I’ll do guest bartending stints and raise money for our team that way. But I just did a Lupus walk in D.C. a little while back, and I’m quick to commit myself to things like that because it’s just good karma points. I learn new things and meet people who struggle with it daily. It’s a good way to check yourself, and remind you that these issues are so much bigger than what I experience on a day-to-day basis. But even things like Habitat for Humanity that are more prolonged causes versus a race or something like that, I get involved with. And that’s helped me understand more about the community and the struggles that Washington County can face directly.

Q: You started the GenNext networking program just about a year ago now. How’s that been going?
A: It took a little bit to get some legs, but we did our first event last November for Thanksgiving, and it’s been growing since. In five or six years from now, I’ll be aging out of my own group, so really, the biggest part is to try and create a legacy that retains people in that post-college group who are thinking, ‘Should I make Washington County my home?’ So our goal is to assure people that their talents are worth retaining here.

Q: What’s something that people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: I used to figure skate — well, roller-skate — at Starland. And there’s an actual picture of me in full-body tights in the lobby at Starland. That was my go-to activity on Saturdays. I would do the ‘shoot the duck’ where you get down, do the squat, stick the leg out and spiral. I would spin. From age 9 to about 13, that’s what I did. That was my athletic career. It stopped and started there.

Q: When you were a kid, where did you see yourself at this stage in your life?
A: I thought I was through with Washington County and the hometown. A lot of the goals were to move away. When life kept me here for a while, there was a time when I wondered if I just wasn’t motivated enough to get out. It can be a challenge to stay here, and keep your talents here, and feel like you are making a difference. But success can be contained and developed here. But that can be a hard thing for a lot of kids to realize.

Emily KellerEmily Keller

Owner/Agent of Emily Keller – Farmers Insurance

Emily Keller was the first female agent in Maryland with a brick and mortar with Farmers Insurance agency, which she opened up just two years ago. Not shy of a little self-promotion, Emily is quick to tout the fact that she has achieved Toppers Club both years, and earned several new business awards, and she currently has one of the top agencies in Maryland, all within Farmers. Aside from the passion she developed for insurance, Emily is a firm believer is giving back to the community. “I think the most important thing we can do as human beings is give back. I was born and raised in Hagerstown, and want nothing more than to know I had a hand in the growing and betterment of the place that I call home. I have made it my mission this year to engage other young people to step up and do our part toward change,” she says.

Q: While having been born and raised in Hagerstown, you did a brief sojourn in a bigger city, right?
A: I lived in Philly for like 18 months. I was hell-bent in high school that I did not belong in Hagerstown — I was the wild one. I moved to the city, and very quickly realized I am indeed not a city girl. I needed some mountains, and cows, and grass. Now I still love city life — I love the fast pace — but I like coming home.

Q: Not that it doesn’t serve an important role in our society, but what drew you to insurance?
A: I am a late bloomer. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I thought I was gonna become a rock star. When I hit 21 or 22 and realized I wasn’t cut out to eat peanut butter and jelly out of the back of a van and be poor for a long time, I thought, ‘OK, I need to figure out what I want to do.’

Q: So you went from rock star dreams to insurance agent?
A: A friend had an opportunity with State Farm who opened an agency, and he needed a sales person. So he asked me to become licensed. I did, and found I loved it. Banking and insurance are the only two face-to-face businesses really left. Everything is so transactional now, and done online. I like that people can come in my office. I really like the environment.

Q: So how’d you go from State Farm sales rep to opening your branch of Farmers Insurance?
A: Farmers had an opportunity to bring their brand to Washington County. I couldn’t say no. Farmers is huge on the West Coast, but they just came east about five years ago. So to be able to take a brand that was nationally known, and introduce it to where I’m from, was an easy decision.

Q: Now that you’ve settled into your own, what are the day-to-day operations for you?
A: It is a lot of phone calls. There is a lot of competition in the insurance industry — especially in Hagerstown. There are a lot of agents, like Gaye McGovern, who have long been established. So I had to find my place. I used the fact that I’m young to my advantage. We take advantage of social media, text messaging and email. I have customers I don’t even know in person who text my cell phone with questions. But the most important thing is to keep them once they come. If people don’t find value in your service, they’ll leave. We do a lot of retention activities, too.

Q: When you’re on the phone or face-to-face with a client, what’s the pitch?
A: We try to paint a picture, and sometimes they’re not pretty pictures — especially when you’re talking about life insurance. I have to ask, ‘If you died tomorrow, would your wife be taken care of?’ People don’t necessarily want to think about that, but it’s our job to make you. I’m morally responsible to make you aware of that, because I don’t want to be on the other end of that phone call knowing I didn’t do my job.

Q: You’ve been getting more involved lately with volunteer work and fundraising. What has caught your attention of late?
A: Overall, it’s important to me that the money is staying local. We have a small town and if we can all rally the troops and make Hagerstown a better place, then that’s what we should do. Relay for Life is really big for me because it’s for the American Cancer Society. My dad is a cancer survivor. When my daughter was 8 months old, he was diagnosed with cancer. The thought of my daughter maybe not knowing him was devastating. He beat it, but while he was going through chemo, I joined. So when I opened up my own agency I knew that was going to be our thing. If I can ever say I had a hand in a 22-year-old girl not having to say my father has cancer, that’s really cool to me. That one was a no-brainer for me, ‘cause my heart was really in it.

Shari AuldridgeShari Auldridge

Owner & Founder, Staged Above

Shari Auldridge is the owner and founder of Staged Above, a staging company that makes homes for sale look their very best for potential buyers. “I’ll spend two hours with the person selling, and tell them what they need to do to get their house ready. I’m trained to know what the buyer will see. I want anybody who walks in the door to see where they’ll be able to put their furniture in there,” Shari says. Does it work? The proof is in the numbers. Shari says that the average time on market for a house in Washington County is 144 days, but for homes that she has staged for clients, that figure drops way down to a mere 21 days. Whether it’s bringing new blood to the area or for a family upgrading to a bigger home, Shari is convinced that she has the golden touch to know what makes someone want to buy a house.

Q: For 12 years you were a stay-at-home mom. What prompted you to get into this business and start your own company?
A: That’s kind of how I am with everything. I don’t just get ideas. I’m all in, or I’m all out. I was a Realtor before, and when all my kids went back to school, I knew I wanted to do something. When we were trying to sell our house, one of the agents brought a stager in, and she was like, ‘You’ve already done everything. You’ve already done what I was gonna tell you to do.’ I later contacted that stager to learn where she got her training, and pursued that. I put together my brochures, had my business cards, and I met with SCORE Hagerstown. I had no business plan, but told them this is what I wanted to do. I liked real estate, but what I really liked was talking to people about getting their house ready.

Q: You’ve got a pretty big inventory of furniture and finishing touches. Where do you tend to get it from?
A: I feel like I’m constantly shopping. I do a lot of shopping online too, but HomeGoods, T.J.Maxx, Marshall’s — but I’ll drive far to get what I need. I’m not going to spend $1,000 on a piece of art, that doesn’t make sense — so I kind of ghetto-fabulous it. The couches I use look fabulous — I wouldn’t necessarily use them in my house — but they look great in a vacant (property). It’s the look. I’m selling the dream. I tell my clients that we want to Pinterest their house.

Q: So does it go beyond knowing the right place to put a couch or a vase?
A: I’m not an interior designer (they’d get really mad if I were to call myself that). But I help investors pick out finishings, pick out tile. I’m constantly being trained in staging and redesign. I know what’s currently ‘in.’ I know what buyers want. I know what looks good, and what’s dated and what needs to go.

Q: What kind of training is involved in this business?
A: There are currently no regulations — which is good and bad, because there’s some bad staging out there. I personally took ASP, which is a three-day course started by Barb Schwartz who coined the term “staging.” I’ve done that twice. I’m a part of HSRA, and I’m a member of RESO, which is a national staging and redesign association, which holds classes every year. So I’m constantly engrossed in it, and keeping it up. It’s also important to be able to educate sellers and agents on what staging is. It’s equal parts business training, and finding out what the current trends are.

Q: As an Air Force brat, you bounced around a good deal before settling in Washington County. How has settling down here been for you?
A: This is a great area for me, because I got in here in this business, really before anyone else. I feel like I’m in a great position to educate this area, and stick closer to home. When I first started, I had to venture out to other communities. But now I’ve got a couple (real estate) agents who really keep me busy.

Q: How’s the family/work balance work for you?
A: It’s hard. Not long ago, I was a stay-at-home mom. I did all the grocery shopping, all the cooking, and running the kids around to the doctors and all that. Now, I just have a really supportive husband, I would say. The balance is that I love my job, but I’ve had to learn when to say no, because I could work 200 hours a week and be fine. We try to eat as a family every day, so if I have a consultation, I schedule it for after. There were nights when I would literally be staging until 2 a.m. — but I was at least home for that span to spend time with my family.

Q: Was this an expensive business to get started in?
A: What’s so cool about this business is I put no money into it except my training. I didn’t buy anything until I had my first vacant. I put everything I bought on my credit card, and when I got paid, I paid it all off. No debt. Every time I’ve gotten a job, I buy more inventory. What’s great is once a couch has been bought, used in a vacant, and then reused, it’s paid for, and now I’m making money on my inventory.