Harpers Ferry has long been recognized as a historic community and a driver of tourism in West Virginia; in fact, the small community of 300 residents relies heavily upon the 10,000 tourists that pass through the town each week.
On July 23, the vitality of the historic town was jeopardized when fire blazed through its downtown area, destroying 30 percent of the business district in its path.
Harpers Ferry is a unique community; in fact, the entire town is on the National Register of Historic Places and the town is surrounded by a National Historical Park—which was one of the many reasons helping the small town and its residents recover became a priority for West Virginia University.
“The devastation felt in this community goes beyond bricks and mortar. It threatened the essence and livelihood of a national landmark,” said WVU Extension Service Dean Steve Bonanno.
Among the rubble stands a community invigorated with new energy and hope, according to WVU Extension Service Leadership Specialist Kelly Nix.
“What is so special about this town is that the people are passionate to take action,” Nix said. “Mayor (Greg) Vaughn is committed to not only rebuilding and restoring this town, but in doing so helping to restore the spirit and passion of the community, which is feeling the loss of their heritage.”
WVU to utilize expertise across disciplines to rebuild Harpers Ferry; organizes Community Input Meeting
When Harpers Ferry town leadership called for support to drive recovery efforts, WVU immediately stepped forward to commit their time, resources and skills to rebuilding the historic town.
Click below to hear the WVUToday radio spot about the Harpers Ferry fire.
The first step was to team with Harpers Ferry residents for the town’s first Action Recovery Community Input Meeting on Thursday, Sept. 3 at 7 p.m. in the Mather Training Center to help formulate a response plan.
In terms of long-term solutions, several WVU colleges and departments have already stepped up to commit to offering strategic development plans, policy guidance, structural engineering, streetscape designs, marketing and clerical support, including the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, Reed College of Media, College of Law and WVU Extension Service.
And WVU President Gordon Gee wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Our quick and meaningful response in Harpers Ferry is just one example of our land-grant university mission in action in our state,” said Gee. “It is an honor for us to be called upon to work side-by-side with citizens. Our faculty and staff have the expertise and energy that can help this community rebuild and flourish.”
According to Bonanno, giving back to the state is WVU’s charge-and it’s not one they are taking lightly.
Giving back to West Virginia and West Virginians isn’t the exception, it’s the rule,” Bonanno said. “This is your University students, faculty, alumni and friends, gathering together to help their fellow Mountaineers move forward.”
WVU Statler College structural expert says outlook is positive
WVU Maurice A. and JoAnn Wadsworth Distinguished Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Hota GangaRao arrived on-site Aug. 13 to offer his expertise on structural preservation to guide town leadership on the most effective approach to restoring the historic buildings impacted by the fire to their original, historic beauty.
GangaRao will team up with Emery Kemp, his former mentor and chair of the department, to work on rebuilding efforts.
“The buildings affected are of great historical significance and I think I speak for all state residents when I say we want to see them restored so future generations of visitors can learn from them,” said GangaRao. “Tourism generates revenue for the state, which is especially true in Harpers Ferry’s case because of its proximity to Washington, D.C. And there is a humanitarian angle to getting these buildings back online because families are dependent on them being operational for their daily livelihood.”
GangaRao joined forces with Ted Shriver from the West Virginia Fire Commission and Harpers Ferry Mayor Gregory Vaughn for a tour of the affected structures during his visit.
The research team, which included P.V. Vijay, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, took measurements of the damaged buildings and made a quick assessment of their structural integrity in an effort to determine a future course of action.
They were surprised by what they found.
“The historic portions of the buildings do not seem to have major structural fire related degradation,” said GangaRao. “The newer additions of 1960s and 1970s have exhibited major damage and may not be suitable for renovation.”
The next step will be to quickly find financial support to repair the buildings, which in GangaRao’s estimation would take approximately two years to complete.
“We would love to be part of the rehabilitation process,” said GangaRao. “This project would provide our students with hands-on experience and provide them with a unique opportunity to have an impact on the history of West Virginia.”
CONTACT: Cassie Thomas, WVU Extension Service
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