West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle is often touted as a success story for the rest of the state as a place with a growing population and thriving economy, a rarity within Appalachia.
With its proximity to the greater Washington, D.C. area and a main trucking route for the Eastern seaboard bisecting it, the area is a bit of an outlier compared to the rest of the state.
But what does that actually mean for the people living there? We decided to find out.
Last week, Mountain State Spotlight traveled around the Eastern Panhandle, visiting communities in Morgan, Jefferson and Berkeley counties. We spoke with people in coffee shops, at local restaurants and in libraries. And what we heard is the story of a region that is definitely growing, but one where that growth isn’t uniformly positive.
Like residents in other parts of the state, Eastern Panhandlers said they face rising costs of living, are frustrated with local politics and feel that lawmakers in Charleston do little to help them.
And they want to better understand what consistent economic growth in the area means for the environment, for health care, and ultimately, for their quality of life. Above all else, they want more information about things happening in their communities and around the state.
“It’s hard to find out what’s going on,” one woman told us in Martinsburg.
Mountain State Spotlight is building a news organization to cover all of West Virginia. We strive to do stories of immense local importance that are of statewide interest. And this listening tour is part of trying to build relationships and communities.
In the coming weeks and months, we plan to look into the issues that communities brought to our attention and tell stories that are directly informed by what we heard.
Plus, we’re going to travel to other parts of the state and listen to what residents around West Virginia need and want from us. Have an idea for where we should go next? Email us here.
For now, here’s more on what we heard in the Eastern Panhandle, and the issues people are most concerned about:
As population increases, landscape changes
More so than anywhere else in the state, the Eastern Panhandle is going through growing pains. Just as it was in the early-to-mid 2000s, developers are chucking up houses as quick as they get permits, with homes starting in the $300,000 sprouting up in former cornfields and orchards like mushrooms in the spring.
In Inwood, a small town south of Martinsburg near the Virginia border, a cornfield was razed for a new Food Lion grocery store. The shopping center’s name is “Butler’s Crossing” after the farmer who once owned the field.
In downtown Martinsburg, the old Interwoven Textile Mill — a 12-acre sock factory long laid empty since the 1970s, with the occasional antique store moving into every once in a while — is being redone into “market rate apartments” in a place that’s already seeing rapidly rising rent.
Those apartments will overlook the City Mission which provides free meals and a shelter for the area’s homeless population. It also borders the mid-town 7-Eleven, which plays classical music through loudspeakers to keep people from drinking on the curb or conducting drug deals.
Many folks who turned out to Spotlight events in the Panhandle said they felt like the area is losing its pastoral charm – one woman lamented that while it’s nice to eat sushi in Martinsburg thanks to the Northern Virginia influence, people aren’t as friendly as they used to be.
“I think there’s less balance here now,” she said. “I feel like it’s more competing with one another than adapting to the community. My home value has doubled – maybe I’ll sell it and go further west, away from all this.”
Lack of affordable housing grows
Concerns about housing aren’t limited to Martinsburg either, throughout the region people said that they are becoming increasingly worried about a lack of affordable housing. Filings for eviction civil cases in Berkeley County are ahead of 2022’s pace, and while new subdivisions are popping up across the area, they won’t do much for some long-term residents unable to keep up with surging prices.
And with so many different groups in need, figuring out how to address the problem can be difficult.
It’s an issue that a homeless veteran who attended one of the listening tour stops in Martinsburg described in detail over a cup of coffee. He’s currently seeking housing services, and hopes that he’ll be able to find transitional housing in the coming weeks.
“People can’t afford anything,” he said. “It’s pushing people out, not bringing them in.”
Community members added that there is a serious need for some sort of organized effort to address housing issues in the area. “We’ve been trying to get something done for more than a year,” a man told us in Charles Town. “But without a point person or task force things keep falling apart.”
Residents feel squeeze of rising cost of living
Tucked away in the industrial park in Martinsburg, UAW Local 1590 President Vannessa Banks walks the picket line with her coworkers. They’re across from the parts warehouse for General Motors, right on Interstate 81.
Banks listed the demands from the union: better pay, an elimination of two-tiered payment system, maintaining the current health insurance and a reinstatement of cost-of-living raises.
Banks, who has worked at the warehouse for 23 years, said she’s a short-timer compared to others on the picket line. Some have worked upwards to 45 years and can’t afford to retire — not with the price of gas and food in the Eastern Panhandle.
Up in Hagerstown, less than a half hour drive north, workers at the Mack Truck plant went on strike after most of the UAW members rejected a 19% raise.
Local president Bob Kelly, who lives in Falling Waters, West Virginia, said the entire area along I-81 — from Franklin County, Pennsylvania to Winchester, Virginia — has seen the cost of living skyrocket.
“It’s tough out there for our guys,” he said. “Property prices have gone through the roof – you can’t even afford a house. You got houses in Berkeley County selling for $500,000. The rent has gone sky high.”
At meetings throughout the region, reporters heard from readers time and again – the Eastern Panhandle is an expensive place to live.
Schools often overcrowded and understaffed
Unlike other parts of the state, where the word “consolidation” tends to be paired with the word “schools,” the Eastern Panhandle has suffered from the opposite problem: schools are bursting at the seams with students.
But one problem facing the schools is a lack of teachers. Often, a new teacher might get a year or two of experience in Berkeley or Jefferson counties, then hop the border to Virginia or Maryland and see their salaries increase by tens of thousands of dollars.
With competition from the trucking firms on I-81, school bus driver shortages are evident in Berkeley County. Outside of a small bus depot attached to Musselman Middle School in Inwood, a banner begged for drivers.
The lack of teachers – and how little they’re paid in a comparatively expensive part of the state – was brought up at almost all events.
Another concern raised was the effects of the HOPE Scholarship, the state’s school voucher program, and charter schools on the public education system.
“They’re gutting our public schools,” one man said at a meeting at the newly-constructed Shepherdstown Library.
Tourism projects, often without local input
Around the state, officials have touted the economic impacts of tourism, pointing to state parks, local attractions, and historical landmarks as key drivers of growth. But in the Eastern Panhandle, local communities say that while they benefit from tourism, they aren’t always as involved in the development of tourism projects as they’d like to be.
A proposed KOA campground in Great Cacapon, for example, is drawing criticism from community advocates who say it is too large for the area it would be placed in.
And near Harpers Ferry, residents continue to cite concerns about a tourism development district around the Hill Top House Hotel, expressing frustration with how a state law allowed for development without municipal input.
“The people of Harpers Ferry won’t benefit from that,” one woman told us in Shepherdstown.
EMS service, health funding needed as population grows
With so many health disparities continuing to affect West Virginians, it wasn’t a surprise that concerns about health care, access to services, and the opioid crisis were top of mind for many people who met with Mountain State Spotlight.
But what was illuminating was the extent of the concerns, and the consistency of them across the region. Access to EMS services, the need for more recovery programs, and more resources for local hospitals and health care workers came up often. Money is also a concern, as one person in Berkeley Springs said about the opioid settlements and other funding: “We need to know where all of the money is going.”
The DHHR reorganization is also raising questions, and some community members asked for more information about the reorganization and what it means for their access to services.
County commissions bungle governance
Jefferson and Berkeley counties are the only two counties in the state with a five-member county commission.
At meet-and-greets in Jefferson County, Mountain State Spotlight heard from a few residents who were concerned about the fact the commission had not been able to vote on anything for almost a month.
Bright and early at 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 12, the same scene played out again – the commission met for one minute and closed up shop due to lack of quorum.
County Commission president Steve Stolipher said in an interview the troubles started after one member of the panel resigned. Two members of the all-Republican commission were concerned they’d be outnumbered with a more moderate Republican, according to Stolipher.
“We’ve missed out on a $50,000 grant for the jail and we can’t approve probate,” he said. “We can’t do anything about new hires or anything.”
In Berkeley County, Mountain State Spotlight heard from residents that its county commission essentially rubber stamps any development in the county.
Over a couple mountains in Morgan County, residents said lack of civic engagement has led the town government to become stale.
But it wasn’t just the local government. Almost everywhere, residents said they felt like lawmakers in Charleston never pay much attention to the Eastern Panhandle.
“They want our money, but that’s about it,” one man said.