Small town, small college and NORCs

I spent Thursday driving about an hour and a half from where I live in downtown Washington to Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Shepherdstown is West Virginia’s oldest community having been established by Thomas Shepherd in 1734. Today, 275 years later, there are still members of the Shepherd family living in the community.

This is a town of around 1100 people, but what a great place to visit and to live! There is a strong arts community, year round cultural activities, some wonderful shops and restaurants, and an extraordinary inventory of historic buildings that make up the living fabric of the town.

Also in Shepherdstown is Shepherd University, a state school of around 4000 students. It was an invitation from Keith Alexander to give a lecture at the University that brought me to Shepherdstown. Keith is the coordinator of the historic preservation program at Shepherd. Most degree programs in historic preservation are in schools of architecture, or history, or American studies. The Shepherd program is within the Institute for Environmental Studies. That’s a splendid place for a preservation program to be, and I don’t know of another case – either graduate or undergraduate – where that’s the case.

The Institute takes a multidisciplinary approach to environmental issues and clearly recognizes that historic preservation is a multidisciplinary activity as well. That was manifested by where Keith was able to raise money for this event. Within the University he secured funds from the Institute for Environmental Studies but also the Department of Economics, the School for Natural Science and Mathematics, and the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies. He also raised funds off campus from the Corporation of Shepherdstown and the Friends of the Shepherdstown Riverfront. That riverfront is spectacular, by the way. Shepherdstown overlooks the Potomac River as it makes its way to Washington.

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I give a fair number of lectures on campuses, but this one was a first for another reason. The President of the University, Dr. Suzanne Shipley, not only showed up to welcome me, but sat through the entire presentation. That’s not, I would suggest, becuase my lecture was particularly important, but rather a reflection of President Shipley’s commitment to support the activities of her faculty and the larger community of Shepherdstown.

Prior to the event on campus I got a great tour of the town and surrounding area by Keith and local activist Lois Turco. Lois and her husband Fred had careers in the Foreign Service, much of it in the Middle East, until they retired to Shepherdstown in 2001. It was while chatting with Lois and Fred at dinner that I recalled an acronym that I learned at Notre Dame last week (see blog of 2/9) from a presentation made by Dr. Shannon Chance of Hampton University. The acronym is NORC — Naturally Occuring Retirement Community.

Shepherdstown is definitely a NORC. Fred told me that the twice annual luncheon of retired Foreign Service professionals draws 30 or 40 people, all from the immediate area.

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What makes Shepherdstown such a desirable place for professional retirees? Most importantly, it is a wonderful small town and extremely walkable. The college and associated cultural and intellectual activities provide a degree of sophistication and world-view that most towns of 1000 people don’t have. The proximity to Washington — an hour and a half away — certainly adds to the appeal, as does the fact that both Amtrak and MARC (the Maryland commuter rail system) have stops in nearby Martinsburg. And 10 miles away is the historic town (and National Landmark) Harpers Ferry.

Shepherdstown is within Jefferson County which has a population of around 50,000, but a disproportionate number of PhDs. Some of them have chosen the area as a NORC. Others are affiliated with two Federal government training centers in the immediate area – The Eastern Management Development Center of the US Office of Personnel Management and the National Conservation Training Center of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

But there was one great disappointment in the Shepherdstown visit – Ferry Hill. This is an early 19th century property owned by the National Park Service. It is a wonderful structure sitting on the hill across from Shepherdstown and overlooking the Potomac. From 1979 until 2001 Ferry Hill served as the headquarters for the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.

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This is an incredible asset. And what is the Park Service doing with it? Ah, well, that would be nothing. “We don’t have the money to do anything with it” they say. OK, I understand that. Then put the property in the hands of another entity – public, private, non-profit – who will come up with the money.

This is too important a property just to sell. But there are plenty of ways the Park Service could transfer possession of the property and generate long term income, without giving up ownership. And there are plenty of legal and transactional tools available to assure the property is treated the way an important historic property should be treated.

The National Park Service should know this principle better than anyone – the best form of preservation is occupancy and use, and the parallel principle – buildings that sit vacant are properties that deteriorate.

And what’s the Park Service’s grand strategy? Well, here’s what they say on their website, “Historic Ferry Hill Place still stands in an idyllic location proudly overlooking the Potomac River, waiting for the next stage of its life to begin.”

There’s an imaginative, entrepreneurial, creative solution for you! If you remember Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, at the end of the play Vladimir and Estragon are still waiting. Surely you can do better than that Park Service.