Manassas Journal Messenger | I-66 rest stop a refuge for color

Thousands of colorful zinnias greet motorists pausing at the Interstate 66 rest stop near Manassas.

The zinnias form a 4-foot-tall garden that attracts birds and butterflies and greets westbound travelers to the Colonial red brick buildings that house restrooms and a welcome center. The setting is unexpected compared to many of the 40 other rest stops along Virginia interstate highways.

The flowers began to spring up three years ago when maintenance supervisor John Mathis dropped a few zinnia seeds in the ground in addition to his landscaping duties. That extra effort has wound up making Manassas one of the best-looking rest stops in Virginia, many visitors say.

Welcome Center Supervisor Sheri Livingston has heard a lot of positive feedback from travelers.

“We needed something to perk the place up and they’ve made the difference,” she said. “For a lot of people, this is their first stop in Virginia, so what they see here is their first impression of the state.”

Sue Reo of Doylestown, Pa., stopped while traveling to Charlottesville with her family.

“We’ve stopped at several rest areas today and this is by far the best,” she said. “You can tell a lot of care is put into it.”

Calvin Ash of Amarillo, Texas, was driving from New Hampshire to Tennessee when he stopped in Manassas.

“You don’t see many rest areas like this,” he said.

Given the effect they have on visitors and tourists, the zinnias are a bargain for the cash-strapped Virginia Department of Transportation maintenance budget. VDOT will spend $16 million this year for rest-stop maintenance, most of which goes to contract employees.

“A couple of dollars on Miracle-Gro and a handful of free seeds goes a long way,” Mathis said. “It looks 100 percent better than before.”

All of the flowers in the world cannot make up for dilapidated restrooms, though. For Jack Sanders of Alexandria, anything that can be done to improve Virginia’s rest stops would be a positive step. He said he noticed the flowers more after emerging from the restroom, which was missing a urinal.

“Until they improve the bathroom facilities, the flowers are merely cosmetic,” he said.

The General Assembly has allocated $20 million for three new rest stops and various restroom improvements. New stops will be built in New Kent County and Winchester, with a third on Interstate 95 at Fredericksburg or Ladysmith. The remainder will go to upgrading restrooms, according to Rob Prezioso, VDOT state manager for infrastructure.

“Most of the rest stops were built about 30 years ago, so the facilities are a little out of date,” he said. “When these projects are finished in April 2007, about a third of our restrooms will have been upgraded.”

At the Manassas rest area, Mathis has plans for the boxes of seeds he saves from dried zinnias.

“You can only do so much with the facilities you have,” he said. “I just try to make this place look good.”

Mathis also works at the rest area on the eastbound side of I-66. He is considering creating a zinnia garden there once he spreads more flowers around the westbound stop.

“Each one of these flowers has hundreds of seeds inside,” he said. “If I used every seed, this place would be covered in flowers. The problem is, I wind up being the one to water them.”

Charlie Ban writes for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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