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Berkeley County has growth pains

October 23, 1999|By LAURA ERNDE and BRYN MICKLEs

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Ten years ago, when Nancy Kilmon drove from Interstate 81 to her job on Winchester Avenue, she had to sit through one stop light.

Today, there are five.

More lights created for more traffic. More traffic created by more people - enough people to make Berkeley County the fastest growing county in West Virginia, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

From 1990 to 1998, the county gained nearly 12,000 people. Total population grew from 59,253 people to 70,970.

The growth has meant new opportunities and new challenges for the Eastern Panhandle county.

Traffic to and from work at Kilmon's job at the Board of Education is one.

On the positive side, residents no longer have to drive on Interstate 81 to shop.

Developer Bruce Van Wyk opened the Martinsburg Mall in 1991. Nationally known stores such as Lowe's and restaurants such as Outback steakhouse and Applebee's soon followed.

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"It used to be you had to go someplace else. Now those things are coming here," said Martinsburg Police Chief Ted Anderson, who has lived here all of his 44 years.

Berkeley County Schools administrator Frank Aliveto said he could remember in the 1970s when the big excitement was the opening of the Nichol's store on North Queen Street.

The store is gone now, replaced by retail powerhouses such as Wal-Mart and Lowe's.

"Growth brings choices. You don't have to go to Nichol's. You can go to a lot of places," Aliveto said.

And people are going, according to gas consumption at the Sheetz convenience stores. Sheetz pumps three times more gas at its seven Eastern Panhandle stations than it did in 1990, according to company Executive Vice President Louie Sheetz.

That means more cars, and that means more traffic. What was once a quick trip from I-81 to the center of Martinsburg now takes considerably longer.

"I like the new businesses, but I don't like the traffic," said Sandy Duffy, who moved to Berkeley County from Charleston, W.Va., where the convenience and variety of shopping were a given.

Despite the traffic, Duffy said Berkeley's growth has been good for the community overall.

"I like change, meeting new people," said Duffy, principal at Rosemont Elementary School.

Among the new people are Sharon and Lou Drummeter, who moved to Martinsburg from Greenbelt, Md., at the beginning of the population boom nine years ago to take advantage of the county's lower cost of living.

He's an Amtrak train attendant and she's a nurse at City Hospital

They live in the city limits, and can walk to church, school and restaurants, Sharon Drummeter said.

Lou Drummeter even walks to the Amtrak train station from his house.

The promise of good jobs brought Carl Harris and Wanda Robinson to Martinsburg from Charleston last month.

"It's a good community. It seems quiet," said Harris, 32, who is looking for a job in the culinary arts.

Robinson, 34, is a drug counselor. She found her job at Eastridge Health Systems Inc. through the Internet.

New faces and new license plates are among the most noticeable changes in the area, said Martinsburg restaurant owner Shane Kauffman, who moved to Martinsburg from Gettysburg, Pa., six years ago

Kauffman opened the Grapevine Cafe on King Street last September.

"I just get the feeling like something big is going to happen here soon," he said.

Government growth

With all the new people come new challenges. Consider:

* Berkeley County's budget has tripled over the past 10 years from $3.5 million to $10.7 million, according to county Administrator Deborah Sheetenhelm.

In 1990, the bulk of the revenue, $1.5 million, came from commercial businesses. Residential taxes provided $459,000 followed by industrial taxes at $424,000.

This year, the county collected $2.8 million in commercial taxes, $2.2 million in residential taxes and $1.2 million in industrial taxes, Sheetenhelm said.

"By expanding our tax base we're avoiding the issue of becoming a solely bedroom community," she said.

* In Martinsburg, the city has added 25 full- and part-time employees over the past 10 years, giving the city government 150 workers, said City Manager Mark Baldwin. Its budget has more than doubled from $3.7 million to $8 million.

"Planning and zoning get more requests, police get more calls, the fire department gets more alarms, the list goes on," Baldwin said.

"We're stretched thin right now but we're still providing the maximum level of services."

The police budget has almost doubled in 10 years, from about $1.3 million to $2.2 million.

The fire budget grew from $786,000 to $1.3 million. The city added four firefighters over the past 10 years but could use six more on its 28-person staff, Fire Chief Phil Martin said.

"As those (farm) fields turn into buildings, you have to worry about more lives and property. We have to be careful that the growth doesn't overwhelm us," Martin said.

* Schools are being flooded with students at the rate of about 300 a year. That's enough to fill a brand new elementary school every year, according to Aliveto.

Job growth

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