Comeback time for downtown Martinsburg?

December 16, 2000

Comeback time for downtown Martinsburg?

"The lights are much brighter there

You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares

So go downtown, things'll be great when you're

Downtown - no finer place, for sure

Downtown - everything's waiting for you"

- From "Downtown," by Tony Hatch, as sung by Petula Clark in 1964

By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - It's been a long time since anyone might have sung those words about this city.

"Years ago, downtown Martinsburg was just a hustle-bustle place," said Cheryl Long, who lives on Eagle School Road and is active in the Berkeley Citizens Coalition.


"I remember all the time going into People's Drug Store and all the people who were there. Within a 20- to 25-year period, it's unbelievable the transformation from everybody being there to nobody being there."

Echoed Martinsburg native and state Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley: "When I was growing up, downtown was very active - there was just a lot of activity going on."

That hasn't been the case in recent years. But downtown may be making a comeback.

"Downtown is on the verge of exploding, if everything happens" that people are talking about making happen, said City Manager Mark Baldwin.

The spokes from the hub of the Eastern Panhandle are starting to shoot out.

The B&O Railroad Roundhouse could become a labor and Civil War museum. The Boarman Art Center may move to the exquisite old Federal Building and Post Office.

Shepherd Technical and Community College is moving to the abandoned Blue Ridge Outlet Center. The five-story former Shenandoah Hotel, now known as the Gateway Building, may be on the verge of new ownership.

A mix of actions and activities large and small - seemingly independent of each other - may represent a force working to create something new from something old.

Potential seen

"I definitely feel there's been a significant increase in the energy level the last couple of years," said Lisa Dall'Olio, who with her husband, Matt Grove, runs an architectural firm on King Street. They live above the business with their two children.

"I don't know if we've reached the critical mass to make things happen."

Neither does Jody Wright, co-owner of Wright's Stained Glass Gallery. She and her husband live next door to their business on Winchester Avenue.

"I think the town has great potential," she said. "Whether that potential is realized, I don't know. It's there. It's ready. It's waiting. We already have the building blocks.

"Whether we build upon them, I'm not sure."

A key part of the building blocks are the old buildings - the 1895 Federal Building and Post Office, the nearby 1913 Apollo Civic Theater, the soon-to-be-renovated Roundhouse that dates to 1867 and the Gateway, built with individual contributions in the 1920s.

"There's hardly a downtown that can hold a candle to our building stock," Dall'Olio said.

That may be the key to whether the city effort succeeds or fails in bringing back the past.

'Preserve and enhance'

A report just completed by the Toronto, Ont.-based consultant Janis Barlow and Associates evaluated the cultural assets and possible future for the downtown.

The overriding message in the recommendations is: "Do not try to be something you aren't, identify what makes you unique and subsequently preserve and enhance it."

The buildings, heritage and history were also noted as community strong points in an assessment from "First Impressions," a West Virginia University program that sent five people into the community this summer who had never been here. Their report was largely upbeat, stressing the renovated downtown and the historical aspects.

It suggested the city needs to promote itself more, present a more welcoming face, fix up the buildings that give it a negative appearance and put together a strategy for economic revival downtown.

Barlow's report also stressed the need for coordinated activity to take advantage of the many assets.

"... There is no current ongoing effort to coordinate shared interests, little effort to coordinate a collective marketing effort and little evidence suggesting that the municipality is actively supporting and exploiting these resources to attract either newcomers (either tourists or residents) to Martinsburg, the report said.

But those drawbacks are far outweighed by the positives listed in the Barlow and First Impressions reports.

"People would die for our problems," said Becky Linton, president of the board of Main Street Martinsburg which promotes downtown. "It seems like we have a lot. We just need to tie it together."

But how?

Involvement needed

"Downtown will never be the same as it was 20 years ago," said City Councilman Richard Yauger, although Douglas insisted that stores like JCPenney are returning to their downtown roots across the country.

Dall'Olio said more people need to get involved in downtown. She and her family are not the only ones living near their work.

"We need to have a sense of ownership," she said.

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