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Selling the Panhandle

June 12, 1999|By DAVE McMILLION

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - David Blythe thinks Berkeley County's history has been largely under wraps, its potential barely untapped.

But he thinks that's about to change.

"I think we're turning that corner were we realize those assets now," said Blythe, executive director of the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Convention and Vistor's Bureau.

One of the most obvious examples is the county's efforts to purchase and take over a 132-year-old B&O Roundhouse off East Martinsburg Street in Martinsburg.

Blythe said there has been skepticim about turning the mammoth, deteriorating building into a convention center. "And I think that is healthy," he said.

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But the effort has the kind of support it needs to be successful, Blythe said. That support has included a $75,000 donation from Gov. Cecil Underwood and a $300,000 grant from U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, which will be used to renovate the roundhouse.

Blythe and members of the Roundhouse Committee, a group of about 25 community leaders working to raise money to purchase the roundhouse, envision turning the building into a community center where expositions, conventions and concerts can be held.

Blythe's optimism is felt by others in town also.

"I sort of feel like it's about to blossom. Things are happening," said Gordon Claucherty, vice president of the Roundhouse Committee.

But the roundhouse is just one of a number of historical treasures in the area that can be turned into economic goldmines if they are marketed, Blythe said.

He is especially excited about the formation of the George Washington Heritage Trail, a scenic byway that passes through historical points of interests relating to George Washington.

The trail follows sections of local highways like U.S. 340, W.Va. 51 and W.Va. 9. It follows W.Va. 9 west through communities like Hedgesville, where the young Washington traveled as a surveyor and onto Berkeley Springs, where it is said Washington built a spring bath.

The trail then loops back east through the Eastern Panhandle, passing by homes built by Washington's family, and finally onto Harpers Ferry, where Washington said an armory should be built.

The newly established byway is marked by signs which guide tourists along the trail.

Blythe said the attractiveness of the byway is that small historic communities can use the byway to promote their own history.Blythe sees the entire Eastern Panhandle as a powerful marketing tool to lure tourists to the area. There's the Charles Town Races, which Blythe described as a "premiere entertainment center" with its plush video lottery rooms, Shepherdstown, which is the "Georgetown of our area" and the efforts in Martinsburg.

Blyhe and others see the roundhouse revovation as a way to spark a revitalization of downtown Martinsburg.

But to make it a successful community center, it must have a steady stream of income, Blythe said.

The rounhouse will need to put on events like music concerts or conventions to raise money, or lease it to organizations that would sponsor such events, Blythe said.

"These are going to be rather substantial structures. So it will have to be done it a true business like fashion. It can't just be a Taj Mahal sitting there," he said.

As efforts continue to purchase the roundhouse, Blythe stays busy marketing Berkeley County's natural history through a wealth of grant money.

Blythe said more money that ever is available in the form of grants to help communities market their tourism strengths.

One source is Direct Marketing Advertizing Grants through the state, Blythe said. Blythe has received at least $95,000 through the grant program which has helped him to pay for Berkeley County tourism advertisements in magazines like Southern Living and McCall's.

"People are making more money and are taking more trips. And of course that bodes well for us since we have two metropolitan areas nearby," Blythe said.

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