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Roundhouse Authority 'treading water'

June 11, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- A public corporation created 10 years ago to oversee the preservation and reuse of the 19th-century Baltimore & Ohio Railroad shops in downtown Martinsburg is struggling to redevelop the property and is practically broke.

"We are struggling to meet our operating costs," Clarence E. "CEM" Martin, chairman of the Berkeley County Roundhouse Authority board, told the Berkeley County Commission on Thursday.

Without bathrooms and fire prevention equipment installed at the county's only national historic landmark, people who have been "beating down our doors" to hold large events there have to be turned away, Martin said.

The Roundhouse Authority's annual Rail Days festival raised about $10,000 last year, which wasn't enough to cover about $14,000 in annual insurance and debt payments in addition to about $20,000 in operating costs, Martin said.

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The annual railroad heritage celebration was moved to the first weekend of October this year from July to avoid hot weather that might have contributed to lower turnout in years past, Martin said.

The shop complex, where the first national strike of rail workers began in 1877, also lacks air conditioning.

The original roundhouse complex built at the same site little more than 10 years before the Civil War was burned by Confederate troops.

The existing buildings, built soon after the war ended in 1865, were designated a National Historic Landmark in 2003.

The cast iron-framed roundhouse in the three-building complex is the sole surviving structure of its kind, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, which designated the buildings to be a historic civil engineering landmark in 2001.

Since the property was acquired from the railroad, Martin said about $8 million raised for the project has been spent to stabilize and restore structures that were in worse condition than initially thought, Martin said.

Now, in the depths of a recession, Martin said fundraising has become very difficult, and the Roundhouse Authority needs about $100,000 to draw down a $500,000 grant awarded for improvements, including bathrooms and other access needs.

A $50,000 state grant recently awarded to the Roundhouse Authority also requires matching money the authority doesn't have, Martin said.

"Quite frankly, we're at a very awkward stage in the project," Martin said.

A public plea last year for volunteers to serve on the Roundhouse Authority's board and help with events, including a newly launched concert series, also went unanswered, Martin said.

"We really need someone who is willing to roll up their sleeves and work," Martin said.

Yet with little money to operate, Martin acknowledged the Roundhouse Authority is not very active now.

"We're kind of treading water," Martin said.

While fundraising is tight, consultants have been retained on a commission basis to explore ways to raise additional funding, Martin said.

While the historic shops, which are two blocks east of Queen Street off Martin and Race streets, have yet to be readapted for a new use, Martin said the buildings have at least been preserved for the community and saved from demolition.

"At least it's not a pile of bricks on the other side of the railroad," Martin said.

The commission praised Martin and Roundhouse Authority members for their efforts.

Commissioner William L. "Bill" Stubblefield said the work done on the buildings might not be readily apparent because it has not made the complex look "bright and shiny."

"And so, people drive by and say, 'Where's the money going for' ... the money's going for important, important restoration," Stubblefield said.

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