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Shepherdstown, W.Va., prepares for peace dialogues

December 22, 1999|By DAVE McMILLION, Charles Town

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - There was an air of excitement in Shepherdstown Wednesday as word that the town would host the next round of peace talks between Syria and Israel began to sink in.

"The town is abuzz. The energy is overwhelming," said Lori Simmons, who has begun designing a T-shirt to commemorate the talks.

Simmons on Wednesday started distributing handouts at local businesses showing the design of the T-shirts and detailing how people could reach her for orders.

Simmons, who works as a cartographer for the National Park Service in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., drew a heart-shaped map of the world for the front of the shirt. Syria, Israel and Shepherdstown are highlighted on the map.

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"I figured someone would do it. It might as be someone local," Simmons said.

Also Wednesday, flyers promoting peace were distributed and high-level federal government officials showed up to make plans for the talks that will begin Jan. 3 at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center.

Some White House staff members were outside the hotel Wednesday taking photographs of the building, Shepherdstown Police Chief Charles Cole said. They will use the pictures to draw a layout of the building, Cole said.

Betty Osbourn, who runs Betty's Restaurant on German Street, is convinced Secret Service agents were in her restaurant Wednesday, although the men did not identify themselves as such, she said.

"That's who it was," said Osbourn, explaining that the men were dressed in suits and carrying cellular phones.

Two of the men went into the bathroom, which has a window, Osbourn said.

"I guess they were looking out. Staking it out," Osbourn said. "It's a nuisance in a way."

While some people were ecstatic over the chance for Shepherdstown to be thrust into the international spotlight, others hinted they would rather not have it happen.

Bill Piercy, who runs Shepherdstown Paint and Art, said he thinks the talks should be held at Camp David instead. Piercy said he likes the ambiance of a small town like Shepherdstown, and would prefer not to see the town go through with the talks "and all the things that go with it."

Local officials expect the town to be flooded with State Department officials and international and U.S. media.

"As you get older, you get a little less interested in getting too involved. You want to maintain the scenery of it as much as you can," said Piercy, who has run his shop for 25 years.

"We moved here because we just wanted to have a slower lifestyle. Now we're living where they're having the Middle East peace talks," said Floyce Reginato, a hotel desk clerk in nearby Martinsburg, W.Va. "It's just never a dull moment."

Phones at her hotel began ringing late Tuesday as word of the conference spread, and rooms were going quickly.

Others wondered how the town would handle such an influx of visitors.

"Where are they going to put all these people? There aren't that many hotel rooms in the Tri-State area," said Shepherd College student Alison Sharpe.

Craig Huyett pointed to the four-way stop in town, which frequently becomes jammed with traffic.

"I think it's quite an honor, but it makes me wonder why they wanted to pick such a small community. I guess it's been well thought out before they brought it here," said Huyett as he waited for an appointment at a real estate office downtown.

Shepherdstown was selected for the talks because of its semi-seclusion and its easy access for President Clinton, who is expected to be available for the talks "on a regular basis," State Department officials have said.

Key players who will be here for the duration of the talks include U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa.

The talks follow two days of preliminary negotiations that ended Dec. 16 in Washington. The longtime Mideast foes are working to revive a proposal abandoned in 1996 under which Syria would get back its Golan Heights and Israel would get security and peace with its Arab neighbor.

Cole said he has been in contact with officials from the State Department and a Secret Service liaison from the agency's Charleston, W.Va., office.

He said he will meet with federal officials early next week to hammer out a game plan.

"Largely, we will be utilized because of our knowledge of who the local people are," he said.

Cole said local police likely would handle arrests if there are minor disturbances associated with the event.

Since Shepherdstown's police force is small - three full-time and three part-time officers in addition to the chief - Cole said he thinks the effort will involve other local police, including campus police at Shepherdstown College.

Jefferson County Sheriff William Senseney said the State Department's executive security force likely will coordinate security. He said he suspects the Clarion will be fairly easy to secure.

"I'm sure as we speak there are people poring over maps," he said.

Staff Writer Brendan Kirby contributed to this story.

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