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Harpers Ferry Tourism Project Bill Passes House of Delegates

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia House of Delegates concurred Monday with a Senate bill aimed at Harpers Ferry and the decades-long tug of war between the town council and owners of the historic Hill Top House hotel.

Senate Bill 657 passed the House in a 88-11 vote Monday with one absent. If the Senate agrees with minor changes made to the bill by the House, the bill will go to the desk of Gov. Jim Justice.

Supporters of the bill in the House said SB 657 is the best way to get the Hill Top House project started and renovating a dilapidated 129-room hotel, its meeting spaces, restaurants, fitness center and other amenities.

SB 657 gives the state Development Office authority to involve itself in projects that qualify for tax credits under the Tourism Development Act that are in historic districts and have a minimum private investment of $25 million in Class IV municipalities, which are cities with 2,000 or fewer residents. The bill would allow the development office to seek the cooperation of the Department of Transportation regarding roads and traffic.

The bill could address up to five tourism development districts, but the focus of the bill is the Hill Top House where the project has been tied up by Harpers Ferry Town Council and Mayor Wayne Bishop. SWaN Hill Top LLC, based in Leesburg, Va., has invested more than $138 million in renovating the historic hotel.

According to The Journal, the Harpers Ferry Town voted Thursday to enter into arbitration with SWaN and to seek legal counsel for a possible lawsuit against the state should SB 657 become law. Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, said the bill should be defeated.

Doyle said the bill would damage the historical credibility of Harpers Ferry where the Lewis and Clark expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase picked up arms and supplies, where abolitionist John Brown led a slave revolt and where black civil rights leader W.E.B. DuBois gave a speech that led six years later to the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“It began at Harpers Ferry, but we are about to pass a bill that eliminates all reference to historic preservation out of, of all places, Harpers Ferry,” Doyle said. “No, it won’t work.”

The Hill Top House project become the focus of a recent election which has yet to be decided. Two candidates filed suit to have four provisional votes counted in the June 2019. Town council acting as an election tribunal ruled against counting the ballots and two of the current council members were declared winners of the election by slim margins.

A circuit court ruled in favor of the two candidates, but a recount was stayed while the state Supreme Court of Appeals reviews the case.

On Feb. 10, an information was filed against Tess Bishop, the daughter of Mayor Bishop, for voting in the Harpers Ferry election despite being registered to vote in her home in Utah.

Delegate S. Marshall Wilson, I-Berkeley, said he didn’t support taking away local control of the project from Harpers Ferry, but due to the issues with the town council election, he said the circumstances warrant the state becoming involved.

“I’ve spoken with a large number of the citizens of Harpers Ferry,” Wilson said.

“Many of them say they want to defeat this bill, but a large number of them have said that what’s really going on is the city council and the mayor have infringed upon their rights and are not acting in accordance with their will…and there are even questions about the election that put that leadership in place.”

According to the West Virginia Tourism Office, 16 projects are benefiting from the tax break. Six projects approved in 2019, including the Hill Top House, total more than $227 million of new investment in the state.

The Hill Top House alone received $49 million from the tax credit. SB 2001, passed during a special session that ended in December, extended the Tourism Development Act to 2026.

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