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Harpers Ferry mayor touts resort proposal

November 30, 2009|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. -- A proposal to raze the historic, but derelict Hilltop House hotel and replace it with a $76 million, high-end resort hotel and spa is absolutely necessary if Harpers Ferry is to continue to be an incorporated town, according to Harpers Ferry Mayor Jim Addy.

Such a bleak picture was painted by Addy Monday night at a meeting called to hear a report on the status of the hotel project by SWaN Investors of Leesburg, Va., a private equity group.

"Harpers Ferry will disappear. It has no money," Addy said. "The future of the town depends on Hilltop. Harpers Ferry will become Bolivar East," a reference to the Town of Bolivar, which abuts Harpers Ferry to the west.

He said there are people who are opposed to the project, but they don't understand how seriously it is needed.

"I try to tell them," he said.

About 50 residents attended the meeting, held in Bolivar's Community Center because Harpers Ferry Town Hall's meeting room was too small to hold the crowd.

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A few in the audience questioned the size and height of the proposed 179-room replacement hotel. The size, determined by the business model, is necessary to accommodate the number of rooms needed to make the facility financially viable, said Mike Miller, project manager for SWaN.

The existing hotel, the original of which was built in 1888 and rebuilt larger again in 1912 and 1919 following fires, has 76 rooms.

"We couldn't make it at that," Miller said.

Hotels make their profits on rooms, not restaurants and other amenities, he said.

Weekend room occupation from tourists, plus a smattering of corporate and government guests would account for 65 percent of the hotel's income. The other 35 percent would come from corporate and government guests, plus a small percentage of tourists on weekdays, he said.

According to Miller, the new resort, when completed, would provide 220 jobs, and about $665,000 to the local tax base during its first year of operation and up to $825,000 a year after that. Harpers Ferry's annual operating budget is $375,000.

Addy said since the old Hilltop Hotel closed, the town has lost about $50,000 in business and occupation taxes. The town's water and sewer departments lost similar amounts, he said.

Miller estimated that up to 72,000 overnight guests would visit the resort every year.

The investors' first goal is to raise $50 million for construction costs. If the money comes in slower than anticipated, the resort would be built in phases. The target date for completion is 2014.

The investment firm has hired Gemstone & Resort LLC to run the resort once it opens.

The investors spent $10 million buying the old hotel property, one of the most visible area landmarks on a high bluff overlooking the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and the town of Harpers Ferry.

Addy said the Harpers Ferry Town Council would most likely take initial action on SWaN's proposal at its January meeting. It will be one of about four votes over the following months before final approval is given.

"There won't be any 'no' votes," Addy said.

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