Marlinton merchant ponders future after fire
MARLINTON, W.Va. -- On a cold, frosty Christmas morning Kristy Lanier walked her dog Squeeky to Main Street in Marlinton and put three flowers on the pile of bricks that was once her home and business. Two days before, a demolition crew had begun to knock down the remains of her coffee shop, Dirtbean O'hana, and the adjacent McK building, both victims of a devastating November fire that displaced eight of the small town's businesses.
Lanier is beginning to think about the future, her future, and whether or not she'll be able to fulfill the dream she had nine years ago when she opened the coffee shop, mountain bike shop and fitness center all rolled into an old grocery store building.
She has some options, and she's still not sure about rebuilding on the property, or if she should try to relocate somewhere else in town or if she should just scrap life in small town West Virginia and head back to her adopted home, Hawaii.
Those decisions are not coming easily to her. But when she talks about reopening, a smile erupts on her face, her voice is animated and she gestures frequently to make her point. Clearly, the little coffee shop that had become a hub of downtown activity had become central to her life over the years.
"The business has been my purpose," she reflected. "I valued my business and what I did. As much as I struggled with the shop, having good employees and enough help, just everything, I needed that place for sure; it was very rewarding work in a strange way," Lanier said.
The rewards of "The Bean" were not just financial.
"People enjoyed it. Just providing something that people enjoyed," she said of those rewards. "Coffee, good food, bikes -- all the things I believe in that make life enjoyable whatever your job may be."
The people who enjoyed it were many. From locals to regular visitors to the one-time-through-town tourists, Dirtbean had a fairly steady flow of customers.
One of those regulars, Rachel Tompkins, of Minnehaha Springs, drove to town nearly every day about 10 a.m. to have coffee, maybe a scone or a muffin, with about half-a-dozen friends at Dirtbean, where they solved the issues of the day from national topics to town business.
The group has relocated to a bed and breakfast up the street, where Nelson Hernandez and Andrea Biondi have opened the kitchen of The Old Clark Inn to the group. First one there makes the coffee.
"All of us view it as an interim arrangement until Kristy and the Dirtbean are back in business. Dirtbean was just such a special place," Tompkins said.
Lots of townsfolk have offered their support for Lanier, and for the reopening of her shop, including the owner of the apartment building where she's now staying. He's not charging her rent.
"I think she's finally realized what she means to people here," Tompkins said.
Tompkins said she hoped the town's new economic development task force would include Lanier and the other property owners in discussions about what should happen next.
Mayor Joe Smith said the group he appointed is going to look at Marlinton's big picture, not just the now-vacant property. But, he said, the 200 block of Main Street will be a primary concern.
The task force will be a resource for the property owners who need information, he said. "Our pledge to them is to help them when they decide what they want to do, whether they want to rebuild or whether they want to sell," Smith said. "It's not the town's decision; it's not the task force's decision. It's their decision."
Smith said he envisioned commercial space on the lower level with quality apartments above.
The lower level of any business in Marlinton presents a problem to potential investors because much of the town sits in the flood plain.
Buildings must be raised above the 100-year flood plain, which does not reach much of Main Street; however, floods in 1985 and 1996 gushed water into the town's business district at levels of 6 to 8 feet.
Smith said those were 500-year floods.
Smith appointed Greenbrier Economic Development Corp. director Steve Weir to chair the task force.
Weir said progress is being made on a couple of different levels. While the buildings are being demolished, the task force is meeting with the property owners to listen to what they have to say about their future.
Weir said the group is also looking at possibilities for the future, whether the owners want to stay in Marlinton, or if they decide to leave.
And Weir said the task force plans to look at how the reconstruction will fit into other properties in town.
"We really want to have that kind of continuity in mind as we move forward," he said. Toward that end, he said the task force plans to hire a consultant to look at the town as a whole and be able to spot the hurdles that will arise.
The work may just be the beginning for Marlinton's rebirth.
"I don't think the effort will stop there," Weir said. "I see this as kind of evolving in a natural way."
For Lanier and the Dirtbean customers, sooner is better.
"If I'm going to stay in Marlinton and Pocahontas County, it hinges on my being able to find a satisfactory location," Lanier said. She's made no real decision yet, but she said she doesn't think she can afford to rebuild on the property she owns because of the time and cost involved in dealing with potential flooding issues.
So many reasons point the way for her to leave, she said. And yet, she can't quite make that leap. Part of the reason for that is the "family" she's found in Marlinton.
Former employee Brenda Walters has not put pressure on Lanier to stay, but "she's family to me," Lanier said.
For the curious, O'hana means "family" in Hawaiian.