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Beckley looks to future after loss of part of its past (Video)

BECKLEY, W.Va. -- Possibly the sole comfort in the aftermath of a fire that destroyed two buildings in the city's historic district Jan. 2 is that an even worse downtown blaze was narrowly averted.

"Our fire department did a tremendous job given the circumstance they had to work with that night," said Mayor Emmett Pugh.

While fighting the fire, which engulfed two buildings at the corner of Neville and Heber streets, the department also poured water on the new Raleigh County Judicial Center federal annex right across the street, and then tried to keep the fire from consuming other businesses down Neville Street.

They succeeded in containing the blaze, but the city-owned structure at the corner known as the Rose and Turner building was gutted, while an adjacent commercial building housing a half-dozen businesses and offices was reduced to smoking rubble.

"We're still trying to evaluate the loss of those buildings," said Pugh. "Anytime you have any kind of fire downtown that takes out business that's not a good thing for downtown."

The city's building, unused at the time, will not be rebuilt, and late last week workers were preparing the remaining shell for demolition, said Pugh. "We have no intention to build our building back."

The second building, owned by Beckley attorney John Mize, had housed his and Mingo Winter's law firms, as well as several tenants and retail outlets including the long-time businesses Trio Consignment and Kopy Xpress. All were a complete loss.

While nothing has been decided, one possibility would be putting in a green space on the site of the city building once it is demolished, said Pugh.

"It'd be a park-type setting, maybe erecting a statue of Senator Robert Byrd in that area -- he was basically a hometown person, born and raised in Sophia and he owned some property in Beckley."

For his part, Mize said he planned to rebuild on the adjacent site on Heber Street, since it is prime downtown real estate, located a stone's throw from city and federal offices.

"I bought that building based on location as much as anything else. It's perfect for a lawyer.  I would love to rebuild there."

Any new building will not be as large as the one that burned, he said. Yet, it should have room for some retail businesses, although the consignment and copy shop owners have indicated they would likely not remain, Mize said.

"I don't think they're interested in rebuilding because they've taken a pretty big loss. I would like to have some space available for tenants. It won't be as much as I had because of the cost. But my building had several tenants paying B&O taxes and property taxes and that's a great loss for the city, so I'd like to see some revenue come in for the city."

Mize said he also liked the idea of adapting to any green space the city might grow up.

"I may be able to blend that in with whatever green space they build and blend that in with a little green space with whatever I build. You want everything to flow together and attract people downtown."

Mize noted that any clients of his law firm or that of Mingo Winters should contact them since the fire destroyed all their files and contact information.

The fire came at a time when a lot of new activity is going on in downtown Beckley. A few blocks away, phase one of the Beckley Intermodal Gateway, funded by more than $20 million in Federal Transit Agency money, will wrap up this spring.

The first phase will feature a new parking garage with about 350 spaces and a bus transit mall and public plaza, with future plans calling for a mixed use retail center, civic office space, welcome center and more.

Meanwhile, a 200-seat theater, the Raleigh Playhouse and Theater, is under construction at the opposite end of Neville Street, a short walk from the site of the fire. The $1.2 million theater is a project of Dan Bickey, who just last August opened McBee's Irish Pub on Neville Street.

"I think the future of downtown is brighter now than it has been in the past," said Mayor Pugh. "That's why when you have a fire it's just a tragedy to lose two ongoing businesses that have been there a long time."

The fire struck on an auspicious anniversary and in nearly the exact same spot -- this year marks the 100th year anniversary of a downtown fire on April 15, 1912, that leveled two full blocks and nearly 40 businesses, noted real estate agent and local historian Scott Worley, chairman of the Raleigh County Historic Landmark Commission.

Monday's fire -- the cause of which was still undetermined last week -- took out two buildings put up in the 1920s that were part of the downtown National Historic District, established in the 1990s.

"These were very key buildings to the historic district," said Worley, who once kept an office in one of the buildings. "Not only because of their location -- the one building with Kopy Xpress and Trio Consignment was virtually unchanged from its original appearance.

"We're still in a lot of shock. Obviously, whatever happens to this piece of property we want it to fit into the character of the historic district that surrounds it."

David Sibray, former head of the landmarks commission who now runs Sibray LLC, a public relations and consulting firm, noted that "when you've got a building missing in your streetscape, you've got a knocked-out tooth -- and you have to figure out how you're going to replace that."

Whatever fills in the space, Sibray said that all effort should be made to echo the character of the area's history.

 "My only recommendation is that the Landmark Commission, the city of Beckley and the landowners consult with authorities in this matter since it is a national historic district. I would hope a thousand years from now folks could visit this historic district in Beckley. That is the goal -- to preserve the district as long as possible."

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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