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Downtown Martinsburg leaders upbeat about the future

October 14, 2008|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Downtown business leaders in Martinsburg were upbeat Monday about the economic health of the community's historic commerce district, despite less than tourist-friendly gas prices and unsettled financial times on Wall Street.

Tuscan Sun owner Laura Gassler said she saw fewer people at her gourmet food and wine shop from the Washington, D.C., area when gas prices were high this summer. But she also noticed a lot more "local traffic," including a number of relatively new residents of the area who said they never visited the downtown area.

Gassler's comments came amid a visit by U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who also toured the adjoining Newberry Executive Center and stopped at DeFluri's Fine Chocolate and the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Convention & Visitors Center.

Gassler said exposure for her business still is a big challenge, but has found that teaming up with other merchants to market events and promotions "certainly pays off" though it might be a little more work.

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"We all try to play off each other," Gassler said.

Main Street Martinsburg Executive Director Randy Lewis said three storefronts are vacant, but there is more business stability in downtown than in years past.

"I think now property owners are showing ownership in their buildings," Lewis said.

He also noted the success of Main Street's chili cook-off, scarecrow and palette projects, and the recent grant money awarded by the state for downtown square improvements.

The Newberry Executive Center, now occupied by 20 tenants, was a restoration project that Gassler said only was completed in February.

Gassler said she received both state and federal tax credits for rehabilitating the building space, which once housed a J.J. Newberry's five and dime store. The upstairs business suites were converted from apartments.

Twelve original art-deco style light fixtures found in the basement were cleaned and rehung in both Tuscan Sun and the Executive Center, and the original tin ceiling was restored, Gassler said.

At DeFluri's Fine Chocolate, a few storefronts from Gassler's shop, proprietor Brenda Casabona reported that business has been "very good" for her and her husband, Charles.

"I could live here," Capito said while touring the expansive production facilities filled with the aroma of chocolate.

Capito's visit to Martinsburg apparently prompted Anne Barth's campaign to stage its own visibility event downtown by holding the candidate's placards at the north intersection of King and Queen streets.

Capito refrained from campaigning during her downtown visit. Earlier Monday, Capito made a campaign stop at Ecolab's facilities off Baker Road near Martinsburg and accepted a political action committee contribution and took part in a Q&A with workers, according to campaign spokesman Kent Gates.

Barth's campaign said the candidate and her supporters were to go door to door Monday evening to encourage residents in the 2nd Congressional District to get out and vote early, beginning Wednesday.

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