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Mayor sees statue, restaurants taking the place of “the hole”

By JESSICA FARRISH

The Register-Herald

BECKLEY, W.Va. — Beckley officials want a landmark for the city, and they’re searching for the perfect idea — one that can be shaped into a quintessential monument to define the spirit of Beckley to residents and visitors.

The designated lot is at the west corner of Neville and South Heber streets in uptown Beckley. Council members started calling the empty lot “the hole” after three buildings burned down there in 2012.
(Register-Herald photo by Chris Jackson)

City officials have invested $25,000 for a stormwater upgrade that will foster development in uptown Beckley, including erection of a statue, according to Beckley Mayor Rob Rappold.

“Our hope is to have an iconic sculpture,” Rappold said. “We want something like the LOVE statue in Philly, something that people come to Beckley and want to have their anniversary pictures taken in front of, and school and union pictures taken in front of.”

The designated lot is at the west corner of Neville and South Heber streets in uptown Beckley. Council members started calling the empty lot “the hole” after three buildings burned down there in 2012, leaving a multi-level abscess that city officials and some local business owners want the city or private entities to develop.

The statue is one part of a comprehensive plan that will turn “the hole” into a plaza that offers dining and a multi-purpose building. In the plaza, Rappold said, he and Beckley Common Council members want artists to form a recognizable tribute to Beckley — a city that, for generations, has served as the commercial and economic hub of southern West Virginia.

“We’re going to have two sets of restaurants, one on the main level and one on the lower level, and a viewing stand and a very nice plaza area,” Rappold said. “Our hope is to have an iconic sculpture in the plaza area.”

In a break from the typical development-related woe, money has fallen like rain for “the hole,” according to the mayor.

“We have local banks who are really enthusiastic to do business with us, and we want to do business,” Rappold said. “And our current projections would say we could probably handle this project with our general finances.”

Water is the main obstacle to developing “the hole” and other spots in uptown Beckley, including the proposed parking lot of the now-closed Zen’s Cafe.

“We have very stringent stormwater requirements,” Rappold explained. “The stormwater drain that is currently in place that would take care of the runoff from the Zen’s parking lot and also take care of the runoff from ‘the hole’ project is inadequate, as far as size goes.”

Rappold said the city is laying the foundational work to begin the project. First is a $25,000 storm drainage upgrade that will require installation of a larger pipe across Neville Street in front of the Zen’s Cafe parking lot at the east corner of Neville and South Heber and travel to the alleyway beside “the hole.”

Rappold said the new pipe will tie into current drainage in place for the federal building across the street from “the hole” and for rooftops in that area of uptown Beckley.

The city has hired Lynch Construction to begin improving stormwater drainage. About two months ago, Lynch had agreed to an Oct. 9 start date to accommodate the popular Chili Night festival in Beckley, which drew a large crowd Oct. 7. Later, Lynch crews had to postpone their work due to an emergency project in another town.

The mayor said storm drain repair will start as soon as the Lynch team can get to Beckley.

“They know we’re chomping at the bit to get it done,” said Rappold, adding, “We understand that it was a moving date. We’re not upset with Lynch at all.”

Once the drainage upgrades are made, Rappold said, a parking area across from the Raleigh County Judicial Center will be available for development.

Rappold said the city is open to a public-private partnership for developers who are interested in the lot, which was the parking area for the currently closed Zen’s Cafe. Local restaurateur Jenny Weng owns both Zen’s and the proposed parking lot.

Until July 2016, two buildings were on the Zen’s parking lot at 310 and 312 Neville St. The Dan Bickey family had owned the property until Weng’s purchase in 2015. When Weng bought the buildings and lot from the Bickey family, the properties were under a demolition ban by the city Historic Landmark Commission, which was in favor of preserving the historic buildings.

After a local engineering firm hired by Weng reported in 2016 that the buildings were in eminent danger of collapse and could harm pedestrians, Beckley Common Council overrode the HLC decision and gave Weng permission to demolish the buildings. Crews tore down the structures in July 2016.

Weng said in 2016 that her long-range plans were to develop the lot into an apartment complex and restaurant. She was not immediately available Tuesday to comment on the proposed lot development.

Rappold said the city is interested in a public-private partnership to develop uptown areas, including the parking lot properties.

Weng said Monday that the closure of Zen’s is for reorganization and remodeling. She said she is looking for a manager to run a downstairs bar and is also planning a new type of restaurant for the upstairs of the building. She expects to offer the new restaurant inside the current Zen’s building in 2018.

“I feel like a fast-food type of Zen’s will be more popular,” Weng said.

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