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HARPERS FERRY – The Hill Top House Hotel property was chosen to become a state-controlled West Virginia Tourism Development District last year. Since then, the behind-the-scenes work to transform the fenced-off and deteriorating historic property into a polished resort has been quietly moving forward, said Laurel Ziemianski, the hotel project’s manager.

The Hill Top’s redevelopment plans for the property with six buildings received state approval with little fanfare on Aug. 4. 

“Demolition on the Hill Top could be taking place by the end of this year,” Ziemianski said. “We’re waiting for permit approval by the DED.”

Construction is now slated to break ground next spring. A new hotel complex should open two years later.   

Renovations to the roofs of former federal armory houses on the hotel property have been taking place.

More than three years ago, a rough estimate publicly disclosed put the hotel redevelopment’s cost at roughly $140 million. Rising costs of lumber and other building materials were all considered for what is now about a $153 million project, Ziemianski said. 

Now there aren’t any foreseeable problems or delays for the project, she added.

To expedite large-scale tourism projects such as the Hill Top, the Tourist Development Districts were created under the West Virginia Tourism Development Act, also known as Senate Bill 657, enacted in March 2020. After the Hill Top redevelopment was delayed for more than a decade at the municipal level, the act placed the Hill Top project’s public review and approval under the jurisdiction of the West Virginia Department of Economic Development (DED). 

State Senator Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, was the legislation’s lead sponsor and catalyst. 

“We are so excited to be working with the state,” Ziemianski offered. “We’ve had several meetings. State officials are very supportive.” 

Ziemianski said she will be working with James Linsenmeyer, a regional DED manager. “We have someone right here, so we don’t have to go through Charleston,” she said.

After first opening its doors in the last 1800s by an African-American entrepreneur, the last Hill Top rendition was shuttered in 2008. That happened after the property’s owners, Fred and Karen Schaufeld of Leesburg, Virginia, discovered the main hotel building was in dangerous disrepair. Efforts to reopen the hotel led the Schaufelds’ to the decision to rebuild the hotel anew to return the property to its earlier grandeur with modern amenities and economies of scale.  

The plans for the hotel site, designed to be compatible with its initial 1800s style and legacy, have adjusted along the way. For example, Ziemianski said 2018 plans were changed concerning an underground public parking lot and conference room, which would have been near the overlook. A parking area was moved to a different location. More recently, a conference room was incorporated into the main hotel layout, not built underneath the site’s scenic overlook as initially envisioned.

The initial scale of the main hotel building was reduced in response to town residents’ concerns, although still not to the satisfaction of some residents. 

Last month a group of town residents formed a nonprofit called Public Asset Protection Inc. The residents still believe the proposed hotel is too large for the site. They are also concerned that a promise by the Schaufelds to allow 24-hour public access to the site’s scenic overlook isn’t ironclad. 

But Ziemianski reiterated that the Schaufelds’ agreement with the town will ensure the public can always enjoy the overlook that has awed town residents and visitors to Jefferson County for generations.  

“Public access to the roads will be 24/7 in perpetuity (meaning forever),” she said. 

  Harpers Ferry contract attorney, Kin Sayre of the Bowles Rice law firm in Martinsburg, said responding to the lawsuit is in its initial stages. The lawsuit could be discussed by the town’s council members as early as an Oct. 11 meeting, he said.

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