That’s some magic show going on in Harpers Ferry right now. For its next trick, watch as the town makes an 11-year-old plan to build a gold-star hotel on a bluff overlooking the Potomac River completely disappear right before your eyes.
Two Saturdays ago, the Town Council hosted a workshop at the Mather Training Center ostensibly for the purpose of discussing how to dispense with a handful of real and on-paper-only streets that have become the latest sticking point in the run-up to rebuild the long-shuttered hotel now that the issue of its size has been resolved, this following a redesign of the project last year by the site’s owner, SWaN Investors of Leesburg, Va.
It didn’t take long after a presentation by the town’s hired consultant Steven Ball for the meeting to begin to unravel amid a clutch of angry outbursts (including a doozy from Town Recorder candidate Myles Morse, who soon stormed off) and for it to veer off topic — with residents polling Town Council members on their thoughts about how progress on the Hill Top project was coming along.
Only Councilman Ed Wheeless and Recorder Kevin Carden expressed concern about the prospect of SWaN abandoning the project with not much to show for years of effort, except a two-year old overlay district ordinance (which apparently doesn’t address how to dispose of public streets — but state Code does).
Every other council member and Mayor Wayne Bishop uttered the usual pabulum about how things were coming along swimmingly, although Councilwoman Midge Yost did say she thinks SWaN should take its concept plan back to the drawing board, one big red flag if there ever was one.
But there was another red flag from Harpers Ferry resident Shaun Amos, that appeared to have gone all but unnoticed.
It was Amos, who, in the closing minutes of Saturday’s workshop, appealed for the town to come together as one in deliberating about the Hill Top project. Amos’s call for comity was unexpected, given that on social media he has been one of the most outspoken and often least amiable members of the opposition to constructing the Rockwool insulation manufacturing facility in Ranson. One week, Amos defaced with a Sharpie an advertising insert that ran in the Spirit of Jefferson, scrawling the words “Spirit of Rockwool,” and more, all over it.
But at the March 6 workshop, Amos appealed to a “spirit” of togetherness and credited the two town residents who helped nurse his partner, Councilman Hardwick Johnson, back to health following a near-fatal automobile accident near the intersection of Shenandoah Street and U.S. 340 in late 2017.
The two — Betsy Bainbridge and Elayne Edel — could not represent more opposing positions on the redevelopment of the Hill Top, Amos noted.
Bainbridge, a former town council member, is one of the founders of the Make It Happen group, which has been pushing for a favorable resolution of SWaN’s project.
It’s what Amos said about Edel that should have made everybody’s ears perk up. The wife of the mayor is on the opposite side of the Hill Top as Bainbridge? Amos sure seemed to be suggesting that very thing.
If Edel is opposed to SWaN’s Hill Top plan, does that mean Bishop is too? When it was his turn to speak at the workshop (an opportunity the town leaders denied to SWaN representatives, by the way) Bishop aimed to sound every bit the statesman, maintaining that his sole interest was in making sure the town’s needs are being looked after and that he continues to work toward progress on getting a hotel built on that site. Interestingly, during a Town Council meeting days before the workshop, Bishop also noted his support for getting a hotel built on the East Ridge promontory, but he notably omitted any mention of SWaN or its Hill Top project (another red flag).
And last Saturday, Bishop did not tell the assembled residents of the town that only hours earlier he had sent out two dispatches to SWaN, both of them clearly meant to send a signal that SWaN has an antagonist, not a partner, in the town’s mayor.
The first dispatch alleged that the dilapidated hotel, closed since 2008, is a health hazard and that he was reporting SWaN to the Environmental Protection Agency.
SWaN quickly checkmated the mayor’s alleged concern, suggesting that if the site is such a health hazard, then all access to the promontory should be disallowed. Remarkably, when the Town Council met a few days later, it elected not to cut off access to the overlook.
The second dispatch to SWaN set up yet another future dispute, this time over property boundary lines on the Hill Top site.
Worth noting: the night before the workshop, a blog was published by Jefferson County resident Scot Faulkner, also a Hill Top opponent, who in 2016 helped to subvert the re-election campaign of then-Mayor Greg Vaughn.
In his screed, Faulkner referred to SWaN as “out-of-state billionaires” and accused the developer of not sending a representative to the funeral of former Hilltop owner Bill Stanhagen. Incredulously, Faulkner went on to argue that tourism to Harpers Ferry had increased in the years since the hotel closed, post hoc ergo propter hoc, one supposes.
Faulkner’s interest in fighting the Hill Top remains unclear. He and his wife, Vicki, a onetime television actress, real estate developer and commercial property manager, have long hovered in the background of Jefferson County politics. The pair has opposed the installation of a cell phone tower at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, the extension of public water service to River Riders, and several years ago, Faulkner, a small-government Republican who worked as an administrator for the U.S. House of Representatives, engineered a deal to get the National Park Service to buy two undeveloped lots he owned near Bolivar Heights, presumably to expand the size of the battlefield or make sure the view off the back deck remained unspoiled. Whatever.
Only days before Faulkner’s blog and the mayor’s RFI barrage, SWaN agreed to yet another of the town’s demands — to spend thousands on studies that would help determine the financial impact of the hotel. (Some on the Town Council want to argue that the Hill Top, with an influx of well-heeled tourists, will hurt existing businesses in and around Harpers Ferry — this as practically every business owner in the town and the county supports the project).
So why would Bishop respond with yet another assault on SWaN even after the company agreed to spend more to further address the town’s stated concerns? It’s worth wondering if the outcome is fixed even though the goalposts keep moving.
Town Council members can mumble all they want about progress. From the looks of things, progress is all happening on one side — with SWaN acquiescing yet again to a loud, self-important gaggle of town leaders who continue to talk out of both sides of their mouths about just what kind of Hill Top redevelopment would suit them.
The voters of Harpers Ferry who want to see the Hill Top rebuilt should begin paying attention to the difference between words and deeds. Real progress on getting the Hill Top built and open is possible, but increasingly it looks like that will start only when this town council and its mayor are sent packing.
— Robert Snyder is the publisher of the Spirit of Jefferson