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Businesses breathe life into plaza

September 15, 1997

By DON AINES

Staff Writer, Martinsburg

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - There are signs of life these days at the mostly vacant Berkeley Plaza shopping center, where one business opened its doors Monday and one of the biggest empty spaces is preparing to reopen as a bingo hall and convention center.

A 33,000-square-foot vacancy in the plaza on U.S. 11, the former J.C. Penney store, is being transformed by a group of investors into the Berkeley County Multi-Purpose Center, according to Tom Stafford, head of initial operations for the group of seven investors.

Stafford said the investors, whom he declined to name, come from Martinsburg and other parts of the state. He said about $100,000 is being spent on renovations and another $75,000 or more on furnishings.

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He said the center will be ready by Oct. 4, when the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Boys and Girls Club plans to begin hosting Top Dollar Bingo. Doug Bush, the club's executive director, said bingo will be held Saturdays and Sundays; doors will open at 2 p.m. and the games will begin at 4 p.m.

"What we intend to do is attract some of the East Coast business from Washington, D.C., and elsewhere" for conventions and trade shows, Stafford said. He said a big antique show is tentatively scheduled for November.

He described the target market for the multi-purpose center as "not down at your flea market level, nor is it the Democratic National Convention level."

Bush hopes the center will be a boon to the club, located in the former National Guard armory at 105 W. John St. Since last year, the club has been running its own small bingo game on Saturday nights, with 15 to 30 patrons generating $300 to $500 a week.

The deal with the center poses no risk for the club, according to Bush. He said it's a three-year lease, but the club can opt out on 30 days notice. None of the club's existing assets can be touched, he added.

If the games take off, the center gets paid $750 a night. With a guaranteed nightly pay out of $8,500 and $17 to play, Bush figures the hall needs to attract 300 to 500 people a night. In addition to bingo, there will also be tip jars, other instant games and concessions.

Stafford said if the games fail to attract the people necessary to pay players and the club's fees, Berkeley County Multi-Purpose Center Inc. will take the loss. He said it's not a deal open to other charities, however.

About five years ago, a volunteer fire company tried to open a bingo parlor in the store, but it quickly closed, according to Bush. He said that group hired a contractor to run the games, but "the way it's set up in West Virginia, the charity has to run the games."

Bush expects to hire up to 30 people at $6.50 an hour, the maximum he can pay under state charitable gaming regulations.

Stafford said the investors have experience with bingo operations elsewhere in the state.

The club is not short of expert advice, Bush explained. Mike Caryl and James Paige, two former state tax and revenue commissioners, are assisting him, along with Keith Wheaton, a former inspector for the Tax and Revenue Department.

According to Bush, the 87-year-old armory building needs plenty of work. The plumbing, wiring and heating systems are all ancient and he'd like to add another gym to the club to accommodate youths and other groups that use the building. He hopes Top Dollar Bingo will bring in $15,000 or more a week and the club is making arrangements to have patrons bused in.

A few doors down the strip mall, Interim Personnel was conducting interviews in a bare office Monday. Before the furniture arrived at about noon, Office Manager Judy Judge had interviewed three clients for the temporary service and job placement company.

President Donna Kaye-Haines said her company opened in Hagerstown in 1976 and expanded into Frederick, Md., five years later. Like Stafford, she said the company chose the Eastern Panhandle for its third office because of the economic growth.

"I thought it was a great spot for the type of business we have," Kaye-Haines said of the plaza, which is owned by Frederick Business Properties of Frederick. She predicted more businesses will move in, although the emphasis may be on offices rather than retail.

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