HARPERS FERRY—As Sandi Marra sat through Monday night’s Harpers Ferry Town Council meeting, she found herself wishing Mayor Wayne Bishop and council members would shift their focus on the Hill Top redevelopment.
“Instead of, ‘I might want to walk up and watch a meteor shower at the point some night and I’m worried I won’t be able to with the hotel there,’ I wish they’d think about the millions of dollars that would come into Harpers Ferry and the rest of the county, the jobs that would be created, all the spending that visitors would do throughout the community.
“Instead of ‘Harpers Ferry is the only constituency that matters,’ I wish they’d think about how much the Hill Top is needed and wanted by the wider community.”
Before the meeting, a group of Hill Top supporters gathered outside Town Hall with signs reading “Make the Hill Top Grand Again,” “Make It Happen,”“Our Streets Are not Paved in Gold” and “It’s Harpers Ferry, Not Wayne’s World” – a dig at the mayor and his attention to the minute details of SWaN’s proposal to rebuild a high-end hotel on the site where Thomas Lovett first opened a resort in 1888.
But the project, formally proposed back in 2008, remains stalled over myriad issues including the rights of way that SWaN officials say must be resolved before the project can move forward.
Whether the public will continue to have access to the fantastic views of the rivers coming together is another sticking point.
On Monday, Councilman Hardy Johnson said town residents and others see the cliffside spot as a place to view meteor showers, propose marriage and form other lifelong memories.
“It’s probably the most iconic view in this entire area,” he said. “What we are being asked to do is to take something that is now a public right of way and allow a private business to decide when and how can go out there. That’s basically what we’re saying.”
Only Councilman Ed Wheeless backed the two proposals presented by SWaN. He also pointed out that the spot with the best views of the overlook near the flagpole where many visitors come now to take photos is land owned by SWaN – not public land at all.
“SWaN has agreed to provide perpetual access to residents of Harpers Ferry,” he said of one proposal. “I can support that.”
“Given that’s SWaN’s offer is in line with our consultant’s recommendation and it increases our tax revenue—that becomes taxable land,” said Wheeless, whose East Ridge Street home is down the same street from the overlook. “It also takes the liability [for maintaining the property] off of the town’s shoulders.”
Karen Schaufeld, the Hill Top project director and a co-owner of the Hill Top property with her husband Fred Schaufeld, said SWaN is flexible and willing to negotiate the wording and terms of its offer to provide public access to the overlook site.
SWaN’s Hill Top project manager Laurel Ziemianski thanked the council for addressing the rights-of way-issue for the first time since the updated hotel project was unveiled in April.
SWaN submitted its requirements for the rights of way to the town in October, after waiting to hear from council members they wanted to handle the rights of way.
She said Monday night’s discussion showed progress toward SWaN’s goal to approve the rights of way by the end of the month.
“We’re still looking for a decision to be made closer to Feb. 28,” she added.
Marra, who is running for Town Council in Bolivar, also serves on the Water Commission. The economic boost provided by the Hill Top would allow the community go far in helping pay for a new water system and could lead to lower sewer and water rates for citizens.
“We have three, maybe four people now on Town Council who just want to make things as complicated as possible,” Marra said. “They want so much cash up front [from SWaN] – it’s like they want to squeeze every last dime they can so that the project dies of a 1,000 lashes. They’re asking for reports and studies that are not necessary or required.”
After the council meeting, Ziemianski released a statement saying SWaN is thankful for the “overwhelming support” of residents who turned out at Town Hall Monday night with “Make Hill Top Happen” signs.
The public backing reinforces SWaN’s plans to rebuild the Hill Top as a world-renown destination, the statement said.
“After waiting four months, discussions between the Harpers Ferry Town Council and SWaN on the use of public streets within the Hill Top site finally began,” Ziemianski stated. “We hope that the Town Council seriously considers the two options that were presented with some specific clarification in wording which restated SWaN’s continued commitment to the public for promontory lookout access.”
SWaN encouraged Town Council members to respond with the specific language they’re interested in changing.
Ziemianski also appeared to express some frustrations. “The Town Council is still requesting reports and fees that are not backed up by statute,” the company’s statement said. “SWaN plans to provide existing reports to help Council make an informed decision.”
The Hill Top campus would include a new 122-room hotel and conference center that would still replace a dilapidated main stone hotel structure built in the early 1900s. Other existing structures used for the hotel complex would be an annex lodge building and five early 19th-century former armory houses that be rebuilt and restored to use for modern lodging.
The project would include a front event lawn at the overlook site. A hotel conference area and other would be built underneath the event lawn.