— A year after the fire, Lower Town is bouncing back.
July 23 marks one year since a fire swept through a block of businesses in historic Harpers Ferry. A concerted community push has enabled successful rebuilding efforts to occur, even as the town sees an uptick in tourism and the groundbreaking for a larger revitalization effort on Potomac Street begins.
Harpers Ferry has been the site of many newsworthy events. October 16, 1859, saw John Brown begin his raid on the town’s armory. March of 1936 brought the worst flood in the town’s history—as water crested at 36.5 feet, destroying bridges and damaging businesses in the lower part of the town. These happenings caused uncertainty, fear, and trepidation on the part of town residents.
July 23, 2015, brought these emotions back to the forefront for many in the community when a fire broke out in the early morning. Karan Townsend, owner of The Town’s Inn, recalls seeing one fire truck around 3am, but that number expanded dramatically “within minutes.”
By dawn, a number of businesses were destroyed, including several retail shops who lost nearly all of their inventory, as well as a couple of apartments.
Townsend noted, “If the firefighters had not been so courageous and well trained, my inn and every building in the town would have burned up.”
Now, a year later, many businesses have been up and running for months, but the effects are still being felt.
John Maxey, owner of Data Direct, was able to find office space within a day of the fire, but that space was in Charles Town. He credits the fact that Data Direct is a technology company, rather than a retail establishment, as the reason he was able to re-open so quickly.
Maxey hopes to be back in Harpers Ferry in the rebuilt structure by mid-2017.
Cindi Dunn, owner of The Vintage Lady, had a slower road to recovery, but was open in a new location by September 5, 2015, just six weeks after her business was destroyed.
“We started from scratch [after the fire],” she said. “We started ordering inventory, equipment, and displays. Everything was delivered to our house.”
Martha Ehlman, who owns Tenfold Fair Trade, was able to move into a new location in Harpers Ferry, as well, and she credits the Jefferson County community as one of the main reasons she was able to do so.
“So many people from our small Lower-Town community, as well as the greater Jefferson County citizenry, really came together to support us with fundraising efforts, as well as a lot of intentional Christmas shopping,” she noted.
Beyond the general community, many of the business owners affected found support from the Harpers Ferry-Bolivar Historic Town Foundation.
“The foundation immediately set in place the ability to be a clearing house for donations,” Dunn said. Ehlman agreed, and counted the foundation among one of the most helpful entities to be engaged in the post-fire process.
Other than organizations, many found friends or even strangers to be part of the backbone of the recovery effort. The morning after the fire, Dunn received an unexpected e-mail from “… a customer—who I didn’t know—offering to assist me with dealing with the insurance issues at no cost.” She now counts that customer as a lifelong friend, and notes that had the fire not happened, she wouldn’t have established such a strong friendship.
Immediately following the fire, there were worries for the business owners beyond simply reopening their stores. “One of our greatest difficulties has been the need to encourage our fabulous employees to seek employment elsewhere,” Ehlman said, describing how, while the store gets back on its feet, non-owner staff are difficult to keep.
Dunn, whose full-time employee has been with her for seven years, listed the staffer’s well-being as one of her top concerns while waiting to reopen. “I remember saying to myself, ‘What’s going to happen to her?’” she recalled.
Dunn’s staff member, who she thinks of as “a member of the family,” was hired for part-time work at the Harpers Ferry Adventure Center for the three weeks before she was able to return to help Dunn and her husband with the dynamics of re-opening the shop.
A larger question remained for the businesses as to how they might do if and when they re-opened. Would sales come back?
According to Dunn, 2016 has been a bumper year for park visitors, due in part to the centennial celebration of the National Park Service.
Maxey agrees that the businesses in the town are seeing a very good year, but for those who still remain shuttered for several months, there is ground to be made up.
Additionally, the area affected by the fire isn’t the only space to see renovation in coming months. On June 3, a groundbreaking ceremony was held for a revitalization effort along Potomac Street. During the initial discussions, which took place eight years ago, the focus was to be on the five Ps: Power lines, Parking, Pedestrians, Preservation and conservation, and future Phases.
Those discussions evolved over the years and produced the project, which has just begun. According to the press release sent out by the town of Harpers Ferry, power lines will be buried, parking will be made easier and more aesthetically pleasing, more pedestrian space will be available, and long-range planning for future projects will be created.
Maxey considers these improvements a reason for Jefferson County residents to continue to visit Harpers Ferry and not let the outpouring of support drop off. “This [Potomac Street] is a four-and-a-half-million-dollar project to correct storm water problems, place electric and other utility lines underground, widen the sidewalks, and repave the street in a more historic pattern.”
He urges residents to have lunch or coffee in the town frequently, so they can see the improvements as they are happening.
Requests made to the County Commission for their assessment of how the project has progressed over the long term were not answered, though Rod Snyder, a candidate for the West Virginia House, and whose district encompasses Harpers Ferry, issued the following comment shortly after the Potomac Street groundbreaking ceremony.
“The generous response … has been remarkable, particularly the support that has been provided to displaced workers and small business owners who lost so much. The rebuilding effort, in tandem with a recent uptick in tourism and other revitalization projects in the Lower Town, give me confidence that Harpers Ferry will emerge stronger than ever.”
Just as Harpers Ferry rebounded from the Civil War and saw the opening of wonderful operations like Storer College, dried out after the worst flood in its history, and became a tourist destination, the business damaged by last year’s fire are joined by the Potomac Street project to put forth an even stronger testament to the community, county, state, and nation that they will continue to both survive, and thrive, no matter the challenge.
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— Leigh is a culture and political writer for The Observer.