Council tables bid to demolish Prince Street building

Jessica Farrish, The Register-Herald, Beckley, W.Va.
·7 min read

Apr. 15—Beckley Common Council voted on Tuesday to take no immediate action on a bid from a Bluefield company to demolish a Prince Street building, after three Council members balked at the idea of tearing down the old building without input from the Historic Landmarks Commission.

The two-story building, which is at 227 Prince St., is a former medical lab. The city had purchased it about three years ago for $111,000. Councilman Kevin Price, Ward IV, reported Tuesday night that the city had bought the building with the intent of tearing it down and using the lot for parking for future businesses.

Mayor Rob Rappold and Board of Public Works Director Jerry Stump reported that the building is beyond repair and presents a danger of a roof cave-in or a detached front facade. Two potential investors, according to the mayor, looked at the property and backed out after reporting that renovations to make the building usable would require $1.2 million to $1.5 million.

On March 22, Rappold opened bids from demolition companies and presented them to at-large council members Sherrie Hunter and Cody Reedy and city treasurer Billie Trump for review. Bids for demolition of a second building on Earwood Street were also opened during the March 22 meeting.

On Tuesday, council was to vote on a single recommendation that the city approve both a bid for Empire Salvage to tear down 227 Prince St. for $62,000 and a bid for Empire to tear down the Earwood Street building for $29,594.

Prior to the reading of the bid by At-large Councilwoman Sherrie Hunter, Councilman Tom Sopher, Ward I, asked that the two bids be considered separately.

"I remember when we bought that building, and it's been a couple years ago, and the condition that it's in now, I mean, when we bought it, it had problems," Sopher said. "It had a leaky roof. The back wall had some loose mortar in it, and things of that nature, but the city spent taxpayer money on that building, and we haven't really done anything with it.

"We've kind of been neglectful of the building," he said.

Sopher, a local historian, said the building is "definitely in the historic district."

Beckley Courthouse Square, including the Prince Street building, is on the National Register of Historic Places. The designation allows the city to be eligible for tax credits and federal loans that aim to preserve historic buildings.

By law, the city Historic Landmarks Commission is responsible for overseeing the development of the historic district. The commission is the architectural and judiciary body that uses a set of guidelines to protect the district from "inappropriate alterations" and demolitions.

Although the eight-block square has been on the National Register since 1994, the city's National Historic District was placed on the "Endangered Properties List" by the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia, a nonprofit that promotes historic preservation in the state.

Beckley had by 2018 lost 22 of its 100 historic buildings to demolitions and renovations that didn't meet historically appropriate standards, PAWS Southern District Representative David Sibray reported.

During the Tuesday meeting, Sopher said he would prefer the Historic Landmarks Commission to review the demolition of the Prince Street lab.

"It's right across the street from the (Raleigh County) courthouse, and I think they should have some kind of say so, and we need a letter of approval from them before we go tearing a building down in a historic district," said Sopher.

He said recently retired City Code Chief Enforcement Officer Bob Cannon had reported to him that the roof of the building was 30 percent deteriorated.

"I just think the building has a lot of worth to it, even though it is in bad shape," he added.

Sopher said the building could generate B&O taxes and create jobs and that the city needs an inventory of buildings.

"Plus, it enhances the views of Shoemaker Square," Sopher said. "It's not an unattractive building, I don't think, personally, so if we're really considering economic development in uptown, I think we need to try to save this building."

Rappold said the decision was not made overnight. In June, a roof collapsed on a historic Main Street building, destroying two buildings and causing an eight-month street closure that forced one business to close its doors. The city began an inventory to check for structural integrity of other downtown buildings after the collapse.

"Two different prospects have looked at that building," Rappold emphasized Tuesday. "In my opinion, the danger involved in that building, as it stands now, far exceeds the thought of trying to preserve the building.

"It's the very first building in our effort to determine buildings that are in danger of collapses."

Stump said the building presents a danger.

"Actually, it's deteriorated so much we couldn't even get people really around it," said Stump. "They were afraid to even do anything to the front of it.

"They're afraid the front might come off it," he added. "Obviously, you like to save things the best that you can, but at this point I think it's done reached past that."

Ward III Councilman Robert Dunlap, an attorney and developer who recently purchased and renovated the historic Beckley Newspapers building on Prince Street, interjected that council did not have authority to approve the bid without approval of the demolition from the Historic Landmarks Commission.

"It is improper to do so," said Dunlap. "More important, we're talking about spending money.

"It doesn't make money sense to pay more money into this to end up with another missing tooth in our city smile.

"If you've ever been to Shoemaker Square, and you look at that where that building will be missing, the view is abhorrent, to be perfectly frank.

"I won't be able to support the demolition efforts on something in the city limits until the Landmarks Commission signs off on it," Dunlap said, adding that he would also have to walk through the building prior to agreeing to a demolition.

"I think that's what my constituents would want me to say," he added.

Rappold said that an engineer had determined the building presented an imminent danger, which was more important than "the time it would take and the theatrics it would take, frankly, for the Historic Landmark Commission to issue their approval on this."

He said that a farmer's market or year-round park are options for the lot, once the demolition has taken place.

At-large Councilman Cody Reedy, however, agreed with Sopher and Dunlap.

"I understand it may be considered dangerous right now, but why put that money in there if we don't even try to take a chance to put it on auction and see if we can't get some money out of it?" questioned Reedy.

He added that any contract could require an investor to meet city code within six months to a year or lose the property to the city.

Hunter said that while she is a preservationist, she believes the danger the building presents overrides other considerations.

"It would be a terrible situation if this repeated what happened on Main Street," she said. "And I don't think we can wait.

"I think that would be a terrible mark on the city."

Price said the lot could offer parking for future businesses, which was why the city had originally bought the building.

Councilwoman Janine Bullock, Ward V, suggested council table the proposed bid approval in order to have more discussion, and Ward 2 Councilman Bob Canter agreed.

The bid was tabled by a vote of four to three.

Council approved a $29,594 bid from Empire Salvage to demolish an Earwood Street building. The lot will be turned into green space under the Parks and Recreation Department.