September 07, 2015

Manchin commits his support to Harpers Ferry fire recovery effort | Herald Mail

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. — "Lower Town" Harpers Ferry building owner Doug Alexander told Sen. Joe Manchin on Monday that he is trying to be optimistic about being able to restore his historic property, but the extent of damage caused by the July 23 blaze might be too great. "The original building ... is 179-years-old," Alexander told Manchin, a Democrat, who visited the fire scene, which heavily damaged the Shepherdstown businessman's building at 109 Potomac St. and impacted the private property of three others nearby.

The fire displaced 45 employees at nine businesses as well as two residential tenants. "The fear is that the shale has been compromised," Alexander said of stone that was used in constructing the circa 1830s building, which was sold to the federal government for housing armory workers.

"We're trying to get studies done on that now," Alexander said of an ongoing assessment, including engineering work by West Virginia University. "We're trying to be optimistic, but it's difficult."

The cause of the fire, which is undetermined, started on a back patio behind Alexander's building. The building housed Private Quinn's Pub.

Neighboring property owner John Maxey told Manchin that a wooden staircase between the buildings that he and Alexander own "sort of turned into a natural chimney the night of the fire." As part of the recovery effort, the three property owners along the ruins of the staircase are willing to donate land and easements as part of a local match to net a federal grant to build a new staircase and again connect Potomac Street to High Street, Maxey told Manchin.

Rebuilding the staircase with wood is cost-prohibitive due to insurance concerns, but vital for pedestrian flow through the business district, which is next to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

Maxey, who owns 181 Potomac St., said five or six businesses were accessed via the staircase. Alexander said contractors advised him that selective restoration of his building would cost three times as much as demolishing what remains and constructing new from the ground up.

"The question, senator, is costs involved ... and that's quite a bit for any property owner to take on," Alexander told Manchin, who met with town leaders and those impacted by the fire at the Harpers Ferry train station before touring the fire scene across Potomac Street.

When Manchin asked if all of the building owners intended to rebuild, Maxey said they are "hopeful, but we have to be able to solve the problem of those stairs."

Maxey said they have insurance coverage to tear down and rebuild, but the cost to restore the original stone work is greater.

"If they're going to force you to put it back (to historical standards), which I hope they do, then you've got to have help," Manchin responded.

The recovery effort comes as the town is about to embark upon the Potomac Street streetscape project, according to Mayor Gregory F. Vaughn.

"They're probably going to be going on at the same time — fortunately or unfortunately," Vaughn said during Manchin's visit. "We're scheduled probably to break ground here within three months."

The transformative project is slated to encompass drainage improvements, removal of utility lines, overhaul of the road surface and sidewalks and parking along Potomac Street. "This whole street area will come up .... It will almost have a cobblestone appearance to it," Vaughn said.

The work is expected to take about six to eight months to complete, the mayor said. Manchin said he has one staffer devoted to handling recovery efforts at his Washington office and indicated he is committed to doing everything he can to personally enlist support for the recovery effort, including personally making phone calls.

While driving to the Eastern Panhandle on Monday, Manchin said he enlisted the support of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright after speaking with her about an unrelated issue.

"She's here quite a bit, she loves this place," Manchin said. "So, that was really refreshing, it was unbelievable — I'm driving here and she's calling me about another issue and we got (to) talking about this."

Manchin said he and his staff would "knock all the stones (and) turn them over a couple times" to try to facilitate help for the historic town. Manchin said he would support a letter sent to Civil War history-focused groups across the nation to seek financial support. He also suggested reaching out to the West Virginia National Guard for possible assistance.

"The historical value, there's nothing like it in the country," Manchin said. "This is the gateway to West Virginia. Abraham Lincoln has his hand prints all over this."

Lincoln visited Harpers Ferry in the fall of 1862 during the Civil War, according to historical accounts.

By:  Matthew Umstead