HARPERS FERRY – The developers of the Hill Top say they want town officials who aren’t obstacles to the hotel project first proposed in 2009, but rather partners.
At Monday night’s Town Council meeting, Hill Top project manager Laurel Ziemianski voiced her frustration at what she called unnecessary delays, unproductive demands and “false and inflammatory statements” aimed at SWaN Investors by some council members and Mayor Wayne Bishop.
“The time for behaviors which attempt to delay, publicly defame or financially bleed the developers or support of this project should have long since ended,” she said in a prepared statement. “You members of this town’s governance who personally or by proxy fan the flames of this should realize that you’re doing this community a disservice.
“We need partners, not adversaries to move this project forward.”
Fred Schaufeld, a principal of SWaN Investors, and his wife Karen Schaufeld, another Hill Top project manager, also attended Monday’s meeting. Fred Schaufeld spent about 30 minutes talking about his commitment to the project and answering questions from the council.
The Hill Top project isn’t a typical money-making undertaking for SWaN, an entity with a host of successful investments that include Pinterest, Kind, Custom Ink, Cava and many others.
“We’re trying to build something that is financially viable” with the Hill Top, Schaufeld said. “This is the lowest return, highest risk, least liquid thing by a long shot that I’m involved with. This would never be something I would bring our other investors into who are not specifically passionate about this project.”
The $130 million project would include about $66 million put in by SWaN, the Schaufeld family and other investors close to the Shaufelds – money that would never be recovered if the project ultimately isn’t profitable, Schaufeld said.
“We need a partnership,” he said. “We go in and people see nothing but discord between us and [the town]. It makes it really, really tough to get it done.”
Ziemianski said SWaN wants to build a 129-room luxury resort, not start over with a smaller version as some council members have suggested.
“If the voters of this town want to end this effort, they can send us their message at the ballot box,” she said, referring to the town’s June 11 election that could put newcomers in the offices of mayor, recorder and all five council seats.
Bishop, who is seeking a second term, did not respond to Ziemianski’s comments. But at the outset of the council meeting, he spent about five minutes discussing what he sees as personal attacks about his opposition to the Hill Top. He also read from letters of support from supporters who view the 129-room hotel project as too large.
Bishop also distributed documents showing a complaint filed against him with the West Virginia Ethics Commission has been dismissed as unsubstantiated.
“I just wanted to share all of those notes and that news with everyone in the meeting,” he said.
Midge Flinn Yost, who is running for re-election to Town Council, also took on Ziemianski’s characterization of the Town Council as an obstacle to progress.
After Yost asked whether Fred and Karen Schaufeld agreed with Ziemianski’s statements and the couple said they did, Yost spent about six minutes, nearly without interruption, voicing her point of view.
“I’m sorry that you feel that way,” Yost said, addressing Ziemianski and the Schaufelds. “It’s not reality. … We have a whole slew of information to show you that we’ve been trying to work towards making this hotel – or not this exact [hotel] with everything that you have, because we know there are all kinds of issue with the statement of conformity … but a hotel, a successful hotel, happen in Harpers Ferry.”
Yost, who has suggested several times that SWaN redraft its concept plan for “more creative” one, said she and other council members have been working many hours and conscientiously on the Hill Top. The councilwoman said SWaN has contributed to delays with “slow” responses to council requests.
While praising the Schaufeld’s passion for the project, Yost said SWaN representatives have fostered a “false narrative” about opposition to the Hill Top from her, the mayor and other council members.
She said she has been unfairly criticized by SWaN representatives. “Many of us have been smeared,” she said.
“You guys have so much, so much resources at your fingertips and also life experience. So really, like, you look around and you want to shoot daggers at me? Really? You know, come on.”
The Schaufelds and SWaN purchased the hotel site for about $10 million in 2008. Plans to first restore the hotel were found to be impossible because of decades of maintenance work that had been put off.
SWaN’s plans for a new hotel have been delayed for nearly a decade, initially over criticism of the size of the hotel. After town officials OK’d zoning regulations for the property, SWaN in 2018 offered a scaled-down proposal.