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State must help out with visitors' center

July 31, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

Since last December, officials in Jefferson County, W.Va., have been working to preserve a state-run visitors center near Harpers Ferry, W.Va. which serves an estimated 300,000 tourists a year. The problem is they don't seem to be getting much help from the state.

The center is located at the intersection of U.S. 340 and Washington Street near Harpers Ferry, in a chalet-style structure built in 1990 as a joint venture that allowed the Division of Tourism to rent the first floor for $150 a month.

The upstairs was occupied by Cedar Images, Inc., which was purchased seven years ago by Victoria Drumheller, who doubled the visitor center's rent last June.

That prompted state Tourism Commissioner Alisa Bailey to announce in December that the center would close the next month, in part because the department didn't want to share space with a commercial business. The lack of a fire escape and handicapped access were also cited as problems.

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Why not build a center in another spot? Because everyone agrees this one is in an ideal location. It's one of the first structures people see when they cross the Shenandoah River into West Virginia.

The Jefferson County Commissioners recently attempted to buy the building, but said they will abandon the effort after Drumheller rejected their offer.

The most obvious solution for the short term would be to seek business contributions to pay for the increased rent. Considering the many businesses in Harper's Ferry and Charles Town and the benefit they receive from the center, that $150 should be easy to raise.

For the long term, the state Highway Department, which owns the land on which the center sits, needs to look back at the original joint-venture agreement. It's hard to believe the state signed an agreement that gives the owner total control and the state no leverage at all.

But the best solution would be for the state to buy the property, assuming the price is reasonable. One of the state's top tourist attractions shouldn't depend on word of mouth to get visitors where they want to go.

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