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Visitors center opens in former fire company hall

December 11, 2003|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Originally built as a home for Independent Fire Co., there still are hints of its former use.

Old wooden lockers where firefighters stored their belongings stand in a back room and a steel spiral staircase extends through the inside of the structure.

The building at 108 N. George St. now has a new role, extending a welcome to the thousands of tourists who come to the area every year.

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An agreement between the Charles Town Building Commission and a private group allowed for the renovation the old fire hall, and the Charles Town Visitors Center now is ready for business.

The city always wanted to renovate the old fire hall and struck a deal with the First Charles Town Group to make it happen. First Charles Town Group agreed to renovate the hall in return for being allowed to use the top two floors.

Peter Chakmakian of First Charles Town Group has been praised for the work on the building.

"He really did an exceptional job. It's just an excellent space," said Teresa Kisner, information specialist at the visitors center, which is next to the Jefferson County Courthouse.

A long room in the center, which used to be a parking bay for fire engines, now houses works by local artists. The Arts and Humanities Alliance of Jefferson County has artwork placed around the room, part of what is proposed to be a continuing effort to showcase various works from West Virginia artisans.

A tin ceiling adds an interesting touch to the room. Near the front entrance, various antiques from a local shop are displayed for sale as well as Sycamore Pottery from Ren and Pam Parziale's shop in Kearneysville, W.Va.

With the artwork, pottery and antiques that are being offered for sale, the Charles Town Visitors Center is capitalizing on a new trend in visitors centers across the country. The center serves as an attraction in addition to offering information, said Paulette Sprinkle, executive director of the Jefferson County Convention and Visitors Bureau, which is running the center.

"We sort of believe we are on the cutting edge with this one," Sprinkle said.

Officials had planned to christen the visitors center last Saturday but postponed the opening due to the snowstorm, Kisner said. The grand opening is planned for Saturday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 10 a.m., Kisner said.

Santa Claus will add a little holiday flair to the occasion by visiting the center from 10 a.m. to noon, Kisner said. Santa also will be at the center today, Friday and Sunday from noon to 1:30, Kisner said.

Tourism is big business for Jefferson County, with about 100,000 people a year streaming into a visitor's center that the Jefferson County Convention and Visitors Bureau operates along U.S. 340 at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., Sprinkle said.

The emphasis now will be encouraging people to visit downtown Charles Town and learn about its history, Sprinkle and Kisner said.

The downtown area is ripe for a booming tourism business considering the Civil War history surrounding the courthouse and other landmarks in town, Kisner said. And the stage also is helped by the completion of Charles Town's $7.1 million revitalization, Kisner said.

"The mayor and the council are to be congratulated on that one," Kisner said.

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