Md. businessman sees promise in downtown Martinsburg

September 29, 2007|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Nearly seven years have passed since Ben T. Fogle saw the photograph that brought him to downtown Martinsburg.

The image of the former Shenandoah Hotel/Gateway Inn, even in its deteriorated condition in the fall of 2000 "looked good," the Potomac, Md., businessman recalled last week.

Beyond the white paint flaking from the cornices and window trim and the busted window panes that invited pigeons, Fogle saw fine architecture and potential.

What was an anchor to the community in the first half of its 80-plus years, when notable guests such as Robert F. Kennedy and actress Debbie Reynolds visited, had declined with the rest of the downtown when the impact of Interstate 81 west of the city began to register.


Vacant storefronts, in fact, still can be found in Martinsburg's historic district, and Fogle has a few in the hotel building and other neighboring properties he has purchased since buying the hotel. His investments include buildings at 201 and 203 N. Queen St., 110-116 W. Martin St. and 115-119 E. Martin St.

Fogle believes downtown will rebound, sooner or later.

"How long it takes to get going depends on how much effort the city fathers want to put into it," said Fogle, who cited successful efforts in Hagerstown and Frederick, Md.

"He must see something in the downtown area," Martinsburg Mayor George Karos said of Fogle. "Whatever he does, he does right."

Fogle believes city leaders should be making offers to business owners, particularly new investors, to encourage them to stay downtown.

"If you make it onerous on them before they're up and running, then they all will go away," Fogle said.

Randy Lewis, executive director of Main Street Martinsburg, said last week he anticipates exploring incentives, particularly related to the city's business and occupation tax, which is applied to gross sales.

"We are working with the city to do incentives to bring businesses downtown," Lewis said.

Based on economics alone, Fogle said he believes business owners will start coming back to the city's historic district as the rent and property values along I-81 continue to increase.

"It's usually art and restaurants that usually brings them back," Fogle said of other downtown districts that he has seen revitalized. "We've been talking about having a culinary school at the Shenandoah building and having a restaurant there, too. Everybody loves to cook."

A new restaurant at the Shenandoah would fill a space occupied by Peking Restaurant, which relocated to 139 S. Queen St. a few years ago.

Rentals of the Shenandoah's crystal chandelier-lighted space for weddings and receptions, including one held this month for lawmakers in town for legislative interim meetings, have doubled since last year, Fogle said.

Among the restaurants that have opened downtown in the last few months are Chef Raffaele, an Italian bistro at 301 W. King St., Corleone Restaurante at 131 S. Queen St., The Historic Market House Grill at 101 N. Queen St. and Limerick Pub & Grille at 220 N. Queen St. All of the new businesses replaced pre-existing restaurants.

Aside from quality businesses, Fourth Ward Councilman Roger Lewis believes a major component to revitalization is the need for residential property to be renovated to modern standards and to attract responsible tenants.

"It has to look first-class," Lewis said.

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