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Opinions sought on Martinsburg revitalization plan

January 26, 2000|By BRENDAN KIRBY

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Martinsburg residents will get a chance tonight to help shape a long-range plan to revitalize the city's downtown core.

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Consultants studying the proposed renovations of the Apollo Civic Theatre on East Martin Street and the old B&O Roundhouse hope to use the projects to reinvigorate Martinsburg as an arts and cultural center.

Janis Barlow, the Toronto-based project manager, will present recommendations in about a month. Those who wish to offer suggestions can do so at the Apollo at 7 p.m. tonight.

The effort began with the proposal to renovate the historic Apollo, a theater that was built in 1912 and at various times has served as a vaudeville house, a movie theater and, for the last 25 years, as home to a performing arts group.

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Humorist Will Rogers was among the famous performers who appeared at the theater.

"The building, of course, has historical significance," said Elizabeth Daniels, the theater's treasurer. "It's an architectural gem."

Daniels said the building has undergone periodic remodeling. The theater's benefactors hope to launch a $3 million renovation that would include a revamped stage, new roof, elevator and other improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

It would "bring this place back to the showcase it was," Daniels said.

The Apollo got a $90,000 grant to develop a renovation plan from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, a philanthropic organization in Pittsburgh.

After learning of simultaneous plans to restore the roundhouse, Benedum officials suggested a wider study that would examine both projects in the context of a larger arts and culture blueprint for the city.

"We decided, let's dovetail it all together. We can fly a lot higher if we all fly together," Daniels said. "We want to look at the entire neighborhood."

Barlow, the project coordinator, has interviewed dozens of community organizations about the overall plan since October. She also has worked on feasibility studies for roundhouse and theater renovations.

A planner from Mississippi, an architect from Texas, a community arts planner from Toronto and a researcher from Washington, D.C., have assisted the effort.

The final details of the blueprint are wide open, Barlow said.

"It can mean anything from popular culture to fine art," she said.

One possible recommendation is to create an arts council to coordinate and promote downtown activities.

That is something that Charleston, W.Va., has done with great success, said Clearance E. "CEM" Martin, chairman of the Berkeley County Roundhouse Authority.

Martin said other suggestions could include aesthetic measures such as installing brick sidewalks and burying electrical lines along King Street.

He said he hopes there will be a strong turnout at tonight's meeting, which will be residents' chance to say "what they think Martinsburg can be and what they want Martinsburg to be."

Noting that Martinsburg has lost business due to recent outlet store closings, Martin said the city needs to capitalize on its proximity to Washington to build a tourism base. That will help all businesses, he said.

"You need to create an atmosphere that attracts people here. That creates its own synergy that builds on itself," he said. "We need to create something to draw people back to our community."

Traci Ford, executive director of Main Street Martinsburg, a nonprofit group that encourages downtown revitalization, said she hopes arts and cultural opportunities will increase foot traffic and lead to more restaurants and employment opportunities.

Among other things, Main Street Martinsburg promotes downtown events and administers a $700,000 low-interest program to fix up commercial properties. Two companies have received loans and others have applied, Ford said.

"We want to see more people shopping downtown," she said. "We want to see more businesses downtown. Downtown is worth staying in and reinvesting."

Martinsburg Mayor Earnest L. Sparks said he hopes a more vibrant arts and cultural center will convince more people to live downtown.

Beyond the vacant storefronts, which he said could be filled with specialty shops, Sparks noted there is plenty of empty space above stores.

"I'd like to see people living in those stores again," he said.

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