A unique collaboration across towns in Jefferson County is revitalizing parts of the Eastern Panhandle.
For a West Virginia history buff, Jefferson County in the Eastern Panhandle is a gold mine of Civil War details and state history. But a community can’t just bank on its battlefields and ghosts to keep streets paved and flower boxes blooming. Vibrant museums need a vibrant business culture. Charles Town and Ranson are two Jefferson County towns that formed a unique cross-town, multimillion-dollar partnership to reinvigorate their streets. In December 2013 the towns broke ground on $100 million in revitalization projects—the latest efforts in decades of planning.
In the 1990s the man-ufacturing centers of Jefferson County began losing jobs. Ranson used to have one of the major vending machine manufacturers in the world, but when the industry left 20 years ago, the city lost a quarter of its budget, according to Ranson City Manager Andy Blake. The loss didn’t just take jobs; it left blight across the county in the form of brownfields—property where reuse is complicated by the hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants left behind. A former foundry location, for example, can easily take on another foundry business, but to legally turn that area into housing requires a lot of cleanup. “Former manufacturing sites can be a real plague for a community for decades and decades,” Blake says. “No one wants to take the risk to buy them and turn them into something else. If you want to put homes or residential structures on brownfields, they have to be cleaned up.”
In 1999 Ranson and Charles Town formed the Commerce Corridor Initiative, a partnership to revitalize their spaces. The project targets a 1.5-mile stretch connecting the towns that had been dotted with at least 15 former manufacturing sites considered brownfields. Together the cities overhauled zoning laws and applied for grants to clean up the sites, starting with a 2001 Environmental Protection Agency Assessment Grant, a pilot program for brownfield cleanup. Following the initial EPA grant, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Transportation joined in to help rebuild the towns. To date, the federal money going to Charles Town and Ranson projects totals more than $13 million, but development hasn’t come from federal grants alone. City and state money as well as private donations have been pouring in. In 2002 Charles Town and Ranson welcomed a new neighbor to the area, American Public University Systems (APUS). The web-based education provider has sponsored $55 million in restoration and development projects, including the restoration of 13 existing buildings, bringing in around 600 jobs.
The cities are literally rebuilding themselves. What was once a vending machine shop has been redeveloped into the Ranson Civic Center. There are plans to redevelop a 100-year-old brass foundry site into a mixed-use area with residential and recreation spaces. The towns are also working on a Fairfax Boulevard beautification project to target the street running between them, as well as the restoration of Charles Washington Hall, a centerpiece of downtown Charles Town built in 1874.
Late last year APUS, Charles Town, and Ranson broke ground on $100 million in projects, which included a new APUS tech and multi-purpose center, an entertainment complex in Ranson, street beautification and the Fairfax Boulevard project, the restoration of Charles Washington Hall, and the redevelopment of the former brass foundry. “There’s a sense of, ‘Wow. Is this really happening?’” Blake says. “People are a little surprised that you look out your window and see constructing going on. A lot of people came together to make this vision a reality, and it’s starting to happen.”
Locals see not only improvement in their cityscapes, but a flourish of interest in local businesses. “It’s really nice to see the growth around here,” says Kate Brown, co-owner of Albert & Arnold’s, a wine and cheese shop in downtown Charles Town. “There’s more foot traffic, there are more options in terms of lunch and eating. It’s hard to find Main Street parking now in the daytime. It was pretty empty before.” Brown says she’d like to see more business come in to fill up some of the empty buildings around town, and every day she hears of some new business project in the works.
In an effort to support small business, Jefferson County recently hired its first business and entrepreneur coach, Tom Halverstadt. The position is a renewable one-year contract funded by the West Virginia Small Business Development Center and local business leaders. “A lot of time you have business owners who know their businesses, but don’t have expertise in the finance sector,” says John Reisenweber, executive director of the Jefferson County Development Authority. “From talking to bankers and accountants we know that sometimes our businesses need help for business projections and plans, and banks can’t always hold their hands through the process.”
Halverstadt’s new role is that of a consultant for local businesses at all stages of growth. “The thrust of my efforts is to help the businesses reach the goals and objectives they set for themselves,” he says. “I work with them one-on-one to help them decide what they want to do to be successful and how they might best achieve their goals.” Halverstadt has begun work with nine local businesses in Jefferson County and Berkeley County, including three businesses in Charles Town, and says the community’s potential for continued growth is there. “Jefferson County’s proximity to Washington provides a great opportunity for market growth. I see the infrastructure being worked on, I see the market potential; there’s a lot going on here in Jefferson County and a lot of reason for optimism.”
Written by Katie Griffith
Images by Stromberg/Garrigan & Associates, Inc.