Goin' Downtown

Martinsburg looks back and plans ahead to keep downtown alive

Martinsburg looks back and plans ahead to keep downtown alive

May 02, 2005|by CANDICE BOSELY

Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series looking at the past, present and future of downtown Martinsburg.

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - Outside of the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Public Library one afternoon, four men sat on a corner of a public plaza, nestled among the flowers and bushes.

Two of the men wordlessly passed a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag back and forth.

The other two were engaged in a heated conversation, with foul language flowing as freely as the other men's alcohol.

Inside the library, quiet prevailed.

Nestled among the well-worn West Virginia history books was this one: "West Virginia, A Guide to the Mountain State," compiled by the Writers' Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of West Virginia.

It first was published in 1941.

A couple of pages were devoted to Martinsburg, described as "the only industrial city in the Eastern Panhandle, (which) produces woolen goods, ladies' garments, socks, apple jelly, vinegar, cement, paper boxes, brick and tile, furniture, limestone, and road-surfacing material. Wide, clean and uncrowded, its streets run from the banks of the Tuscarora Creek into open rolling country."


The book attributed a romantic flair to the city: "Three-quarters of a century of industrial development have invested Martinsburg with a livelier air than other towns in the Eastern Panhandle. On Saturday nights its streets are crowded with shoppers. Over a Virginian inheritance of leisurely living has been laid a thin veneer of business briskness, reflected in the hurry of traffic and crowds during working hours. With the five o'clock whistle, however, Martinsburg adopts the easy-going manner of the South."

Some of the items listed - including cement - still are produced in Martinsburg, but the open rolling country now likely is home to more houses than farms or wildlife.

City on the move

Martinsburg is a city on the move.

Its "bust" period - which, like in so many other towns, began with the opening of shopping centers outside of town - is over and a "boom" is under way.

New stores are opening, including a specialty shop featuring handcrafted West Virginia glass products. Other new shops are a store that sells party supplies, a florist's shop and two stores that feature women's clothing. Although the business supply store closed, the building did not sit empty for long and now is the site of a men's clothing shop that relocated and an office complex.

The number of empty downtown buildings is dwindling and an award-winning Main Street Martinsburg organization has spearheaded a number of downtown events.

Occasionally, the concrete sidewalks do teem with people, but Mayor George Karos said the city might never be as busy as in past years.

A downtown plan completed a year ago by a consulting company indicated that the city is not taking advantage of its retail opportunities.

"Downtown Martinsburg presently functions as a governmental, office and service center for the region, but not as the center of retail activity. In order for a downtown to be economically viable from a retail standpoint, shoppers must be attracted to the area, and have a reason to spend an extended period of time while in the downtown area," the study states.

Festivals and other events that bring people downtown regularly, restaurants that remain open in the evenings, comparative retail shopping with continuous shopping flow and adequate off-street parking are needed, the study indicates.

Vacant storefronts

A whistle no longer blows at 5 p.m.

This once-booming industrial city now has eight vacant storefronts along a three-block section of Queen Street, from King to Race streets.

The woolen mills that once were the hub of the town now sit empty, visited only by vandals interested in smashing glass windows.

Customers at downtown restaurants are outnumbered by those at chain restaurants boasting of low-carb menu items and all-you-can-eat buffets outside of town.

The former beauty school is empty. So is the used furniture/junk shop. The shopping outlet center closed years ago and was purchased by the county. When all of the county's offices move into that complex, several of their downtown buildings will be empty and put up for sale.

Businesses that still are open include, among others, banks, lawyers' offices, a used book store, a video store, a handful of restaurants and an adult shop that is open 24 hours a day, just across the street and around the corner from City Hall.

Local historian Don Wood, 71, remembers Martinsburg in its heyday.

On Saturday evenings, he would sometimes head into town with his unmarried sisters and their boyfriends.

They would stop in a confectionery in the former Shenandoah Hotel building, where he would be treated to either a sundae or a Cherry Smash, a drink.

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