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Bill affecting tourism project passes Senate

CHARLESTON — A bill that could affect a multi-million-dollar hotel project a decade in the making in Jefferson County passed the West Virginia Senate Tuesday

Senate Bill 657 passed the Senate in a 21-12 vote Tuesday with state Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, being the only Eastern Panhandle senator to vote against the bill.

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, those 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.

While the bill could address up to five tourism development districts, it’s primarily aimed at the Hilltop House project in Harpers Ferry. SWaN Investors have invested more than $138 million in renovating the dilapidated 129-room hotel, its meeting spaces, restaurants, fitness center and other amenities.

SWaN and officials with Harpers Ferry have not been able to agree on the best way to move forward with the project.

The bill was amended Monday to address concerns raised by Harpers Ferry that the bill was an end-run around town ordinances and regulations. It would require the Development Office to draft rules for non-binding reviews of existing planning and zoning ordinances of any municipality in which the tourism development district is located and expand the time for public comment on the project.

“This is creating a tool for the Department of Commerce and the small municipalities to use, if needed, if it fits the criteria,” Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said. “A tool that will help our small towns who might not have the resources to bring a big project into their towns. A tool that could help us with economic development.”

Speaking Tuesday against the bill, Unger said the bill is being pushed by gambling lobbyists and takes away local control from any Class IV municipality considering this type of project.

“I just want us to think about what we’re doing here,” Unger said.

Citing the 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry by abolitionist John Brown to arm black slaves for an uprising against the South – the incident that put Harpers Ferry in the history books – Unger said the divisions in the community over the Hilltop House would only worsen with this bill.

“The shot that started the Civil War started in Harpers Ferry,” Unger said. “What are we starting right now with this piece of legislation and these other municipalities?”

“I have fought for local control,” Rucker said. “But there is no more local control than the individual control, and that includes self-control. I’m very much afraid because of the lack of a few individuals’ self-control, things have gone on for so long and so far in this beautiful town…this is really dividing up the community.”

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