One of the city’s most famous landmarks is on its way to disappearing, but Beckley Mayor Rob Rappold and other city officials are hardly wringing their hands.
Motorists may have noticed a flurry of recent activity at The Hole — that notorious, publicly denigrated, two-level empty lot at Heber and Neville streets — as workers have started the long-awaited process of filling it.
As of Sunday, work crews had poured the footers for walls of a special plaza that has been planned for the space since 2017, Rappold said. A stormwater drain-hole and drain line had already been installed, in preparation for the construction that would, finally, fill The Hole.
“We’re off and running!” Rappold exclaimed. “We should see real progress right away.
“The Hole has gained an identity and life of its own, for all the understandable reasons,” added the mayor, whose term has been plagued by the abyss. “It was a far more complicated fix than most could imagine.”
The Hole is a chapter all its own in Beckley history and one that Rappold would like to close.
It started on Jan. 2, 2012, when a fire broke out at a historic building that was on the lot.
High winter winds hampered firefighters’ efforts to contain the blaze, and the fire spread to an adjacent building, then a third. The fire was colossal — so huge, in fact, that Beaver Volunteer Fire Department sent crews to support the efforts of Beckley Fire Department firefighters who had battled the fire for hours.
Eventually, firefighters put out the flames, leaving a burned-out lot. All firefighters who spoke publicly about the blaze later would characterize it as a devastating fire and harrowing experience. Kevin Price, who now represents Ward IV on Beckley Common Council, said in 2018 that the experience of battling the fire was a major factor in his decision to retire from BFD, shortly after the incident.
The Hole — as it would become known in city lore — came into its full form when the city tore down the three buildings completely on June 30, 2012, leaving a gaping pit and collecting a $500,000 insurance policy.
For the next seven and a half years, the empty space would sit there as a silent, mocking albatross to passers-by and to three mayors — Emmett Pugh, Bill O’Brien and Rappold.
The Hole would be a particular mollymawk to Rappold, who inherited it when he was elected in 2016.
By the time Rappold took office with plans of welcoming West Virginia University Institute of Technology and turning Beckley into a cool little college town, The Hole was no longer a silent millstone. Its enduring presence had spawned a chorus of critical voices at city hall, in print and on Facebook, as Beckleyans and local media began to ask when the city would rid the downtown of the unsightly reminder of the dangerous fire.
Rappold, Council members and Jill Moorefield of Beckley Events tried, but it seemed that the abysmal lot had some of the life force of ancient Rome, with all roads leading back to an unfilled, ever-present canyon in the middle of town.
At first, city officials sought private buyers. Rappold — who had not been mayor when the fire gutted the three buildings, said they had an investor who expressed interest but backed out during negotiations.
When the private sale fell through, Moorefield in early 2018 worked with architects to develop a plan for a multi-purpose building, an outdoor plaza and an iconic sculpture to fill what was, by then, called The Hole.
Rappold set a soft budget of $300,000.
The city invested $26,000 to upgrade stormwater drainage and to turn a retaining wall into a foundational wall. Changes had to be made to the street corner, too.
The goal, at first, was to have the plaza completed by August 2018.
In September 2018, Rappold announced that architects had returned with an estimated budget of $2 million for completion of the project, which included construction features that Moorefield and other city officials had not anticipated nor approved.
Rappold and city treasurer Billie Trump balked at the high price and sent designers back to the drawing board, this time with help from a renowned architect who had also designed the new Beckley Police Department.
Chili Night 2018 was set as the new completion date. The first Saturday in October 2018 came and went, but the local void was still looming large.
Meanwhile, The Hole had stealthily carved its own niche as a city landmark.
As Rappold and Beckley Common Council painstakingly forged ahead with plans to add a plaza and a piece of iconic art that represented the city at the corner of Heber and Neville, some said The Hole had already become iconic, even sparking a satirical Facebook page operated by Gary Vaughan, who pushed the city to make progress on filling it.
As a member of Council, Price also became a leading voice for progress at The Hole. He was often joined by Ward I Councilman Tom Sopher in questioning city officials about construction and a timeline for progress.
Although Rappold and Council had optimistically set a new completion date for Oct. 6 — the 28th annual Chili Night — Councilman Tim Berry admitted Sunday that Chili Night revelers will get one more chance to gaze at the epochal Hole.
“It won’t be completed by Chili Night,” said Berry.
Even so, the work at The Hole this past week is the most visible progress to date, and Berry said more is expected.
“(The city) should have significant progress,” said Berry.
Councilman Price, who had, literally, watched the city’s history go up in smoke as The Hole’s past occupying buildings were burning, joined Rappold Sunday in celebrating the work at the site.
“I’m glad to have cleared various hurdles of the designing and engineering of the space, as well as taking care of the other requirements as are set forth by different agencies,” said Price. “We wanted it to be something nice, but we also wanted it to be right.”
Like Price and Berry, Rappold was anticipating the end of The Hole era on Sunday.
“How fortunate is this Council and administration to be guiding the city now, to lay The Hole to rest and to begin a new era, still addressing the other good things going on in Beckley?” Rappold asked. “We will all end up being proud of its appearance.”
This fall, The Hole is expected to disappear, inch-by-inch, as workers raise the infamous lot to meet Heber and Neville.
“(We’re) hoping to begin bringing it up to street level this month,” Councilman Berry said Sunday.
Eventually, it will give way to a plaza that celebrates Beckley’s progress.
But history has shown that progress at The Hole can operate at its own warped standard of time.
Stay tuned. The Hole Story is yet to be written.