The Hill Top House Hotel in Harpers Ferry has a storied history. The African-American Lovett family built the hotel overlooking the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers in the late 19th Century.
For years, it was a pearl of the eastern panhandle, hosting such notables as President Woodrow Wilson, Mark Twain, Alexander Graham Bell and W.E.B. Du Bois.
Among the visitors in more recent years were Fred and Karen Schaufeld, who fell in love with its charm. When the hotel fell on hard times, they bought the property with plans to rebuild it in the style of its original glory.
That was 13 years ago and still the hotel sits in decline surrounded by a chain-link fence. The Schaufelds have been locked in a battle with Harpers Ferry town leaders over all those years.
As our Brad McElhinny reported following a visit to Harpers Ferry, “The hotel developers and town leaders haven’t seen eye to eye enough to move the project forward. Both sides say a hotel would be an asset to the historic community, but agreeing on details about how the hotel would blend into the surrounding residential neighborhood has been elusive.”
That’s putting it nicely. Here’s how the Washington Post summarized the disputes that have caused a bitter divide in the community.
“For the past 13 years, the town has been riven by disputes over the new hotel’s size and its design; its parking and sewage needs; and the effects of an influx of clientele for its $500-a-night rooms, underground golf simulator and restaurant overseen by celebrity chef José Andrés. Project consultants have quit in disgust. The owners, Fred and Karen Schaufeld, who live in Northern Virginia, have left the table and come back to it, only to leave again,” the Post reported.
Now the Schaufelds have taken a different route. They have convinced the West Virginia Legislature to pass a bill that would clear the way for the development. Senate Bill 657, sponsored by Senator Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, would allow the state to assume responsibility for the development of major tourism projects in small towns, like Harpers Ferry.
As McElhinny reported, “The bill would apply to Class IV municipalities of fewer than 2,000 residents. And it would apply to projects with investments of more than $25 million, in historic districts and qualifying for state tourism tax credits, which have their own requirements.”
It is evident many lawmakers empathize with the Schaufelds. The bill cleared both the Senate and House and is now headed to the Governor.
Opponents argue this is tantamount to the state sticking its nose in the the town’s business. The reality is that is exactly what this bill does, and for good reason. The reconstruction of Hill Top is a $139 million investment with a potential impact well beyond the boundaries of Harpers Ferry.
After 13 years of stops and starts, haggling and headwinds, we should be thankful the Schaufelds haven’t given up by now on their dream, and taken their investment money elsewhere, while telling horror stories about trying to do business in West Virginia.
Additionally, municipalities do not exist as independent entities. Chapter 8 of the West Virginia State Code defines municipal governments, how they are created and how they are to work. All current cities exist and function only as recognized by state law.
When the state recognizes that a municipality is not functioning correctly, as the sovereign, it has every right to intervene, which is what this bill does. The Governor should sign the bill and let’s get on with this long-delayed and worthwhile project of rebuilding Hill Top House.