HARPERS FERRY – Wayne Bishop, seeking a second term as mayor as the Hill Top House Hotel redevelopment drama enters its 11th year, insisted during a recent candidates forum that the town is doing just fine.
“Our position right now as far as our finances is good,” he said during a May 4 candidates forum hosted by the Harpers Ferry Woman’s Club. “Our streets are filled with tourists every weekend.”
Bishop said the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park saw a jump in attendance last year – with “31.7 percent” more visitors, though he did not cite the source of his information.
But Bishop’s opponent in the June 11 election, Chris Craig, told those gathered for the candidates forum at Camp Hill-Wesley United Methodist Church that he’s concerned about the town’s recent reliance on depleting its reserves.
Craig noted that the town with about 300 residents depends on a tourist economy. He pointed to National Park Service’s numbers showing attendance here dropped 22 percent last year as a reason to get the Hill Top project back on track. The historic hotel has been closed since 2008.
In fact, the NPS did report a 22 percent drop in number of visitors to Harpers Ferry, from 342,535 in 2017 to 265,737 last year. The 2017 figure marked a 20-year record high park attendance.
Craig said the town needs the Hill Top and the money it would pay in taxes and in bringing in visitors to other businesses in town. He said Harpers Ferry shouldn’t be supplementing its budget with $200,000 a year from its savings account.
Bishop did not respond to a request for clarification about the park numbers he cited.
An independent study from Ernst & Young ordered by the Harpers Ferry Town Council and paid for by SWaN, the Virginia development company that owns the Hill Top, found the new hotel would generate $1 million in direct tax revenues and another $790,000 in indirect tax revenues for the town.
The hotel also would bring $28 million in new annual economic growth to the surrounding area and $38 million in new economic growth throughout West Virginia, according to the study.
In 2017, tourists visiting Jefferson County accounted for about $570 million in spending at shops, restaurants and hotels, according to a study conducted for the West Virginia Tourism Office.
The park’s 2018 attendance numbers were the lowest since 2014 when 261,202 people visited Harpers Ferry, according to the park service.
Between 2009 and 2013, attendance at the park varied from 255,348 to 275,044.
Autumn Cook, a Harpers Ferry park ranger and public information staffer, said the 2018 spike came after a marketing blitz and that it wasn’t unexpected to see the number of visitors ebb as the campaign ended, she said.
Cook said the attendance figures come from counts at the National Park Service’s official visitors center off U.S. 340 as well as an estimate of “walk-in” visitors who don’t use the parking lot.
The park is marking its 75th anniversary this year.
NPS figures for the Harpers Ferry park date to 1956 when 115,700 visitors came to ramble through Harpers Ferry’s cobblestone streets and miles of nature trails.
That number ballooned to more than 1 million people annually from 1968 to 1970, though Cook said those totals were devised under a method that she can’t vouch for.
The election will decide who serves as mayor for the next two years and whether the Town Council includes incumbents Charlotte Thompson, Midge Flinn Yost, Barbara Humes and Hardy Johnson or newcomers Nancy Singleton Case, Leah Howell, Debbie McGee, Christian Pechuekonis and Jay Premack. Kevin Carden is seeking re-election as recorder, with Myles Morse as his opposition.