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Hilltop House project estimated at $76M

By Staff | Jan 22, 2010

The proposed structure, at right, offers 179 rooms, compared to the current 76.

Harpers Ferry Mayor James Addy has said the now-abandoned Hilltop House Hotel on East Ridge Street could be as important to the town as the United States Armory and Arsenal of the 1800s.

“The financial future of this town is in serious jeopardy without this hotel,” Addy said. He believes a new hotel could help make Harpers Ferry the tourist attraction it was in the 1950s and 1960s.

The site offers a commanding view of the Potomac River that Thomas Jefferson said was “worth the trip across the Atlantic.”

In 2007, SWaN Investors of Leesburg, Va., purchased the historic 400 E. Ridge St. hotel, surrounding properties and Burns Island in the Potomac River for about $9 million.

Mike Miller, SWaN representative, said the company could spend $76 million to rebuild Hilltop. Company heads expect an estimated 70,000 visitors a year and the creation of 220 jobs. A planned $1.8 million “visit Harpers Ferry” advertising campaign would help make that happen, Miller said.

SWaN plans to tear down the 76-room facility and rebuild it as a 179-room destination hotel spa. The project includes a ballroom, conference rooms, full-service spa, outdoor walking areas and overlook, workout room, a pool and the restoration of several adjacent historic structures as guest houses.

The town government has realized a shortfall of about $13,000 to $17,000 a year in business and occupation (B&O) taxes and $10,000 to $15,000 in hotel motel taxes since the Hilltop closed. Water service rates have jumped 30 percent, and town officials have requested adjacent Boliver to contribute more money to the Harpers Ferry Police Department operating budget.

SWaN forecasts $665,000 in liquor and business and occupation (B&O) taxes in the first year after reopening, with $825,000 annually projected thereafter.

The mayor concedes even the Town Council is not unanimously in favor of a new, larger hotel. And townspeople have spoken out at public meetings about traffic congestion and wonder whether a new structure would respect the strict guidelines of the National Historical Park. Discussions about the proposal have become so heated the town has hired a moderator who facilitates discussions during the Hilltop House meetings.

During a Monday, Jan. 11, meeting the Harpers Ferry Town Council approved a $130,000 permit fee measure. SWaN has agreed to pay for that and an additional $20,000 for a town-selected site plan reviewer.

When SWaN first bought the property two years ago, plans called for a renovation. But Oehrlein & Associates and Robert Silman Associates did a site review and structural assessment, and determined the hotel should be closed. Both of these firms have experience with historic projects in the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

SWaN does not expect a Harpers Ferry Town Council vote until May. The company submitted a master plan for the facility and grounds in May 2009. It could be about two years before any work begins at the Hilltop House Hotel, Miller said.

SWaN intends to build a hotel styled after the 1888 original structure built by Harpers Ferry native Thomas S. Lovett.