Sparse crowd wants county government to stay put

April 23, 2004|by RICHARD F. BELISLE

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - If there is any opposition to moving Jefferson County government out of downtown Charles Town there was little evidence of it at a public hearing on the subject Thursday night.

Only a handful of people attended and no representatives from the Charles Town City Council were there.

The county government is running out of space and the commissioners are wrestling with finding a solution.

Michael Thompson, Jefferson County prosecutor, made an impassioned plea to the commissioners to leave the government in the city, saying to do otherwise would "create a disaster for Charles Town."

Thompson said the county has about 120 employees on its payroll, including 80 to 85 who work in downtown offices.

They eat in local restaurants and shop in local stores, he said.

In addition, jurors and witnesses also eat downtown and sometimes shop there, he said.

Thompson urged the commissioners to keep all county judicial functions together, even if they are moved out of the city.


He asked what the county would do with its old buildings, including the courthouse. "They are all specially configured. Who would buy them and spend the money to reconfigure them," he said.

He said the law would prevent the commissioners from selling the courthouse so it would have to be maintained even if it were empty. "It would be a monster to keep up," he said.

The courthouse was the site of abolitionist John Brown's treason trial in 1859 and the 1920s West Virginia Mine Wars trial.

Peter Chakmakian, a local attorney, renovated the building across from the old jail building. Now owned by the county, it houses the magistrate court.

Chakmakian joined Thompson in urging the commissioners to stay in the city.

"I'm chagrined," he said. "It's unthinkable to move out of downtown."

The city recently spent about $7 million on a downtown revitalization project.

"Charles Town is beautiful now," Chakmakian said. Moving county government out "would be like dressing a corpse in the finest suit and putting it in a casket and burying it."

The commissioners' challenge, he said, is to figure out how the government will stay in town. Some buildings could be razed and the historical ones kept, he said.

"Charles Town can't survive on tourism alone," he said.

Earl Jackson, a Mildred Street resident, said he favors moving the county government out.

If the future of downtown Charles Town's economic viability "depends on 184 lunches then I don't think it has much of a future," he said.

The city needs more specialty shops and more good restaurants to attract tourists, he said.

Commissioner President Al Hooper said he was disappointed that no member of the city council came to the hearing.

Hooper said the commissioners voted earlier this month to move the sheriff's department, 911 communications center and emergency services to a new building the county plans to build on county-owned land in the Bardane Industrial Park about five miles west of Charles Town.

It is projected that the building and equipment will cost $5.5 million, Hooper said.

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