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Harpers Ferry mayor gives update after fire

By Staff | Nov 6, 2015

Mayor Greg Vaughn was the guest speaker at the Chamber of Commerce lunch last week to provide an update of events, and a look into future projects in Harpers Ferry since the fire that ravaged 10 businesses on July 23.

Vaughn began with a quick refresher of Harpers Ferry, stating that despite the fact that Harpers Ferry is the one of the smallest municipalities in the state, with only approximately 285 people, it is probably the most historic, and therefore the most visited municipality, with on average, 10 to 20 thousand visitors each week.

“Harpers Ferry is also the principal gateway into West Virginia from the heavily populated northeast corridor of the United States,” said Vaughn. “When people get up in the morning in Baltimore or the [Washington] D.C. area and decide they want to come to Harpers Ferry, they arrive from route 340, and Harpers Ferry is the first municipality they see.”

Vaughn went on to describer the governance of the historic area, saying that it operates under a “strong mayor” system. The mayor is in charge of all the administrative dealings. In other words, the buck stops with him. So when the fire happened, he had to do some serious work.

“It’s not the cushy job I thought it was going to be,” joked the mayor. “I had to employ the ‘SOMP’ (seat of my pants) style of management. I had to be flexible because there was no city manager to turn to. Most challenging for me personally, was dealing with such a nationally acclaimed tragedy. I saw first-hand what a special place Harpers Ferry is to people—and not just the residents.”

Vaughn provided an overview of the fire, saying that it was a three-alarm fire in which 25 different fire departments responded from three states. (West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia) There were between 75 and 100 firefighters on the scene, along with many rescue and law enforcement personnel. Four separate buildings that encompassed 10 businesses were destroyed, displacing 45 employees.

The magnitude of loss from the devastated businesses is great. Ten businesses equal 30 per cent of Harpers Ferry’s business district. Vaughn said that is a huge chunk of revenue to try to make up.

“It hit us–and is still hitting us very hard,” said Vaughn.

“But I’m proud to report,” said Vaughn “that two of the 10 businesses have reopened—The Vintage Lady and Tenfold.” (La Niche Boutique has also reopened, but has relocated to Frederick, Maryland.)

Upon reaching out for help, the response was almost instantaneous.

“West Virginia University has been a remarkable partner to us,” stated Vaughn. “Under the land grant authority, they have the ability to assist a municipality and that’s exactly what they’ve done.”

The WVU School of Journalism has done marketing for Harpers Ferry. The WVU School of Architecture flew a drone over Harpers Ferry to take pictures to put together a ‘street-scape’ project to submit to the West Virginia Department of Highways for a grant to transform the street from the old ‘

‘Secret Six’ to the black pipe railing on High Street.

WVU’s College of Engineering completed an advisory report on the structure of the buildings in town.

Mayor Vaughn said that in addition to the help that WVU has given, university president, Gordon Gee calls him at least once a month to check in and to inquire if any other assistance is required.

“I believe we’re going to have a rebirth in lower town,” said Vaughn. “I live in lower town, and I can tell you that visitation in Harpers Ferry has gone up since the fire.”

But Harpers Ferry is still looking for other means of revenue. One of those means may come in the form of ‘home rule,’ meaning that certain municipalities have the ability to pass laws to govern themselves as they see fit (so long as they obey the state and federal constitutions).

Class four municipalities (which is Harpers Ferry’s category) have just become eligible for home rule. Vaughn, with the assistance of WVU has applied for home rule in Harpers Ferry.

“As with all other municipalities in the state, we are struggling,” said Vaughn. “Some of the benefits of applying for home rule are that it will provide other avenues of income, and it will also help decrease rigorous administrative entanglements and make a smoother transition into ordinances, which will benefit our community.”

Since Harpers Ferry is landlocked between Bolivar, two rivers, and the U.S. government, there are no opportunities for expansion to increase revenue. Mayor Vaughn said the town is considering putting parking meters on Washington St. temporarily as revenue enhancement.

On a last positive note in Mayor Vaughn’s address, he shared that Harpers Ferry is the recipient of a combined grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation and the West Virginia Department of Highways. The grant application process began over six years ago and is valued at $2 million to transform Potomac St.

“The utility poles will be relocated under ground, there will be a storm water channeling system, and the roadscape will change in an attempt to match the cobblestone that the Park Service has,” said Vaughn.

The project is slated to start in February of 2016, and take approximately six months to complete.