In West Virginia, we face an abandoned and dilapidated properties dilemma. With over 400,000 homes built more than 50 years ago, the Mountain State is littered with old neighborhoods now sitting empty and decaying, while nearby industrial sites are contaminated with hazardous materials. In the late 1980s, Ranson and Charles Town, like many rural towns before them, suffered the fate of outward migration as factories closed. For this featured preservation success story, we’ll learn about how one university system has spurred a revitalization on in these neighboring communities in Jefferson County.
After losing an 800- employee business in 2001, the two cities joined together with a vision to to create a precedent-setting Area-Wide Brownfields Plan to beautify and re-use brownfields, a term for vacant properties and hazardous industrial sites. A year later, American Public University System (APUS) joined the brigade to revitalize the area – while utilizing energy efficient building techniques, including solar energy and an electric/ hybrid car charging station. APUS is an online, for-profit university offering more than 90 degree programs through American Military University and American Public University over 100,000 working adults. In 2002, it relocated its headquarters to Charles Town from Manassas, VA. Almost 15 years later, with over $55 million invested, APUS has been the defining force breathing life back into these former industrial hubs. What makes this story even more unique is APUS’s dedication to historic preservation. APUS has singlehandedly rehabilitated over 15 historic properties surrounding the Commerce Corridor, a 1½ mile segment connecting the historic downtowns of Ranson and Charles Town.In the 2013 Brownfields Plan, six brownfields were targeted for community redevelopment projects along this corridor – which APUS’s revitalization movement is turning into the “Green Corridor”.
In 2011, APUS opened the doors to its new Academic Learning Center on the Veiner Scrap Yard site. Linking Ranson and Charles Town, it was used for over a century for metal disposal and recycling. The former industrial park closed unexpectedly and sat vacant for almost two decades. APUS not only redeveloped the property into its LEED Gold 45,000 square foot Academic Center, but also opened its LEED Silver Financial Center and the state’s largest solar array-covered parking lot. These brownfield redevelopment projects, along with recent historic home renovations along South George Street, are having significant and lasting economic and social benefits. APUS’s preservation ethic maintains streetscapes and encourages healthy living by walking.
Why did APUS choose the preservation route? It’s simple, explains APUS’s former President and CEO, Dr. Wallace E. Boston: “In addition to revitalizing Charles Town’s downtown, we realized that our renovations were not requiring the city or county to expand its transportation and utility infrastructure. We also concentrated our growth in an area where some businesses had moved out and our presence was supporting local restaurants and other merchants that might have otherwise closed.”
The university owns eight historic properties along S. George Street, the primary corporate campus for APUS’s 600+ employees. In 2015, APUS announced the completion of three exciting, historic home rehabilitation projects at 200, 208, and 300 S. George Street.
APUS preserved the buildings’ exterior integrity while incorporating new interior design elements and energy efficiency techniques. Two are now Guest Quarters for APUS Executive Team members who do not live in Charles Town but work there frequently during the week. The third house opened as the Eastern Panhandle’s first Technology Innovation Center, a small business technology incubator, focused on veteran-based entrepreneurs and technology-based companies.
These projects are all in addition to the significant contribution APUS made in assisting the Friends of Happy Retreat and the City of Charles Town in securing the Happy Retreat mansion and estate. This preservation ethos has multiple benefits, according to Dr. John Hough, Vice President of Community Relations at APUS, who explained, “Developing the property [at Happy Retreat] helps beautify the community and recruit potenial employees [to APUS].” With an innovative and smart approach to property redevelopment, APUS exemplifies the rehabilitaion projects that PAWV promotes. APUS is a model for best practices in brownfield and historic property redevelopment. Join PAWV in celebrating APUS’s successes and its laudable pledges to continued economic development in the state’s eastern panhandle.
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