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Outlets' closing ends one era, begins another

April 15, 2000|By DAVE McMILLION

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - One of Martinsburg's most well-known attractions has faded into history.

After 16 years of attracting shoppers with more than 50 outlet stores set in an attractive backdrop of restored woolen mills, the Blue Ridge Outlet Center has closed.

Moncure Chatfield-Taylor, owner of the complex, is often praised for his vision of turning the three buildings that once housed the woolen mills built between 1900 and 1930 into outlet stores.

The buildings were basically ready for the "bulldozer," according to Mayor Earnest L. Sparks, but Chatfield-Taylor saw something different.

He began an extensive renovation of the three buildings along West Stephen Street between 1984 and 1988, retaining part of their original distinct design with large windows and hardwood floors.

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Shoppers flocked to the stores, and for years they made Martinsburg a popular destination.

But in recent years, competition from new outlet malls in Hagerstown and Leesburg, Va., began hurting business at Blue Ridge. Stores in the 227,000-square-foot center gradually began closing.

By August of last year, three stores were preparing to close. Two more announced their plans to close in November, and by December only six stores remained.

Last week, the community learned of the center's demise through a message on a marquee outside the Dunn Building which read: "The Blue Ridge Outlet Center is closed. Thank you for your business the last 16 years."

But as one concept died, another was born.

The message gave a phone number for information about space and offered an Internet address where more could be learned about the "Blue Ridge Tech Center."

The Web site - www.blueridgetechcenter.com - reported the three buildings are "available for alternative use."

"This property is readily adaptable for retail, office, housing or educational use," the Web site said.

Chatfield-Taylor could not be reached for comment on what he hopes to use the buildings for. He has repeatedly declined to talk publicly about the outlets' future.

That's no surprise in this town, where Chatfield-Taylor is described as an astute businessman who does things his own way.

"He's a very tight-lipped person, and that's OK," said Martinsburg City Council member Richard Yauger.

"Moncure kind of takes care of his own marketing," said Sparks.

The buildings are being considered as a possible site for Shepherd College's Community and Technical College. Local lawmakers are trying to get money from next year's budget to move the community college to Martinsburg.

In case the community college project does not work out, Chatfield-Taylor has decided he has to market the building for whatever use he can attract, said Sparks, who has talked to Chatfield-Taylor about the buildings.

"As a businessman, he has to do that," Sparks said. "He has to keep chugging along. I don't know that he has any specific things set up."

City officials and representatives of groups such as the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Chamber of Commerce said they have not talked to Chatfield-Taylor about helping market the buildings.

City Manager Mark Baldwin said the city would be happy to help in marketing efforts if Chatfield-Taylor requests it.

"Obviously, we would love to see it developed into a facility that would provide jobs, a tax base and economic development," Baldwin said. "We just want to see the best use that would revitalize that site and downtown Martinsburg."

City officials and local development officials say the buildings could be used for practically anything, including light industrial operations, high-tech companies, retail stores or legal or business offices.

"Each building would not have to be the same as the other because they are independent buildings," said Judy Faul, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce.

Yauger, on the other hand, said the businesses that would move in "would probably be a shared vision of something."

On the Web site, layouts are provided for the Dunn, Berkeley and Crawford buildings. There are layouts showing the current configurations of the buildings and layouts illustrating how they could be converted to classrooms, administrative work stations, and lounge and study areas.

"The properties comprise the majority of a neighborhood and, taken together, offer an opportunity to have a certain amount of visual control, as well as offering future lands for expansion," the Web site said.

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