Sign hooked behind a fence that reads " Private Property No Trespassing"

When drugs come into our downtowns, businesses suffer. Downtown merchants are fighting back.

Originally published in West Virginia Focus magazine

Mid-June southern West Virginia news brief: “Former Employee Accused of Setting Deli on Fire.” Firefighters spotted the smoke early and doused the downtown Logan blaze before it became serious. Police caught a suspected arsonist and sent him to jail.

Crime solved, one might say. But the untold backstory points to deeper issues. Bernie’s Cole Street Deli had let an employee go a few weeks earlier when he started showing up to work high on pills and stealing from the business. “The day after we fired him, he cut our power. He cut our phone lines,” says Bernie’s wife and co-owner Carolyn Sidebottom. “The next day, he busted out the windows. The police took him to jail, but after he confessed to everything they dropped the charges.” That left an addict free to continue his campaign of revenge against a small business in a struggling downtown.

We hear a lot about the ways drugs ravage families. Meth cooks breathe in toxic byproducts, and addicts lose their jobs and neglect their children. Prescription pain pills, too expensive for sustainable habits, lead to desperation and crime. Crack cocaine and heroin even bring gun violence.

But we don’t talk much about the day-to-day effects of drugs on our downtowns: how the illicit trade gives our small towns the worst of a big-city feel, daunting visitors in the very centers of commerce and culture we’re working to revitalize. Maybe we don’t talk about it because we’re afraid of scaring people away. “Honestly, I haven’t had any businesses express a problem with that locally,” says an economic development manager in a county known to be rife with heroin.

It’s a dilemma for Main Street entrepreneurs. While they’re compassionate about addiction and the need for addiction services downtown—indeed, some are themselves addicts in recovery—they also need towns to feel safe and welcoming to their customers. They want to talk about the drug problems: with each other, with law enforcement, and with policymakers. And towns that are having that conversation are finding solutions.

Morgantown: Business-Police Cooperation and New Legislation

Monongalia County had 2.2 drug overdoses per 10,000 residents in 2012, 27th among West Virginia counties.

They say Morgantown has two downtowns. By day, boutiques and restaurants on High Street do a busy trade; a relaxed crowd strolls the sidewalks at dinnertime. But by around 10 p.m., nightlife takes over. Bar- and club-goers migrate in clusters, talking loudly, women’s heels clicking. Neon glows.

Walnut, the major cross street, might be a little desolate during the day if it weren’t for the beloved Blue Moose Cafe drawing people a block off High Street for a coffee or pastry and some conversation. In recent years, though, daytime Walnut has taken on a seedier nighttime feel. “There could be people hanging out in dark alcoves, and groups of so many guys they would block the sidewalk and people had to walk around them,” says Blue Moose owner Gary Tannenbaum. “For a person who hasn’t experienced much of that kind of thing it could be kind of scary—and I had more than one customer express that to me.”

At least as far back as 2011, Blue Moose and adjacent Sandwich U were caught between X-Hale Hookah Lounge on Walnut and the Mid-Nite Adult novelty store around the corner—both selling synthetic marijuana. Packaged under names like Funky Monkey and Dead Man as potpourri or incense, synthetic marijuana’s unregulated and variable chemistry makes it dangerous for users. But while it’s illegal under “top down” federal laws that ban classes of substances that behave like drugs, it was not illegal under West Virginia’s “bottom up” bans of specific chemical formulas. When first Pennsylvania, then Maryland followed the federal example in 2013, more synthetic drugs flowed into town—and that bred unsavory side activity. “There were entrepreneurs coming in who figured they could undercut the stores’ prices, and it was also bringing in people who were selling other drugs because they saw a fertile field of business,” Tannenbaum says. “The hanging out got steadily worse and worse. It did hurt my business.” Yet, while city police waited for federal agents to build their case, it was hard for the downtown beat officer to do much about that. “The loitering created a feeling of unsafety, but it’s not illegal,” says Police Chief Ed Preston. “That was frustrating for citizens. Morgantown has a very low crime rate, but facts and perceptions don’t always line up and, in this situation, they absolutely didn’t line up.”

As conditions grew worse, an informal downtown quality-of-life task force took up the issue. The police department increased its presence to address Tannenbaum’s and other merchants’ concerns, and Main Street Morgantown tackled the law. “Several municipalities in West Virginia had passed ordinances against the sale of synthetic drugs, but it was the opinion of our city attorney that those ordinances could be challenged because state code did not have that in place,” says Main Street Executive Director Terri Cutright. “We started talking with our legislators and bringing city council and county commission up to speed on how important this was.” Through an aggressive, cooperative effort, House Bill 4208, introduced by Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, was passed, making synthetic marijuana illegal in West Virginia.

The law took effect on June 6 and there’s clear indication it will make a difference. On April 29, federal authorities shut X-Hale and Mid-Nite Adult down. “Overnight, it changed. Just like that,” Tannenbaum said in June. “There isn’t anything going on out there now. It’s hard to tell yet if my business is picking up, but my guess is people are happier to come out now.” Preston says the police still write citations downtown for more conventional drugs ranging from marijuana to heroin, “but the activity we were seeing before, we don’t see it at all.”

The new law is just one part of a collaborative approach for Walnut Street. The city plans to extend High Street’s updated streetscaping down Walnut to improve the atmosphere. “And we’re looking at, how do we get some better tenants in place who can change the culture there?” Cutright says. Preston says a full-time weekday beat cop makes a big difference, and activity—not just commerce, but festivals, arts walks, business after-hours, and all kinds of events—helps to keep loitering down. Cutright is hopeful. “Walnut Street isn’t all the way solved today, but it’s on its way up.”

Martinsburg: Social Services, Downtown Residences, and Commerce a Tough Mix

Berkeley County had 3.1 drug overdoses per 10,000 residents in 2012, 19th among West Virginia counties.

Situated on a plateau, Martinsburg has an expansive feel that distinguishes it from most West Virginia towns. Its pre-Revolutionary origins are evident in the names of its main downtown thoroughfares: Queen Street and King Street. Preserved structures give it some of that gracious colonial feel that, in West Virginia, is unique to the Eastern Panhandle. But the location also has its downside. “Proximity to Baltimore,” is how Police Captain George Swartwood identifies it. “Heroin is the prevalent drug here, and it all comes in from Baltimore.”

Dana’s Tuxedo owner Dana Knowles thinks it may not affect her as much as some because she runs a destination business that doesn’t rely much on foot traffic. She’s operated downtown for almost a decade and is herself 17 years clean and sober, so she can tell when something is going on. “The people who lived above my old shop, a block from here, were selling drugs. People would park in front and run upstairs for two minutes or five minutes, and not the most upstanding citizens in the community,” Knowles says. It didn’t feel unsafe to her—they just wanted to be left alone, she says—but some customers expressed discomfort. “When the upstanding types of customers I wanted would come to my business and there would be four or five people hanging out on the street, it created a perception.”

There’s less unseemly activity at Knowles’ current location. She thinks it’s because there are fewer apartments above the shops. Landlords don’t always do great background checks, she says, and even if they do, a good tenant can turn bad—and that drives good tenants out. “I’ve seen nice, clean people move in and after a month they’re like, ‘I don’t care if I lose my security deposit—I’m leaving.’ Scared to walk out of their door because of the drug dealing.” She attends AA meetings at the VA hospital and thinks the magnitude of the problem may be related to the hospital’s services. “People come there from Baltimore and Washington, D.C. I’ve seen where they get a couple meals, some sleep, and some clean clothes and think, ‘OK, I’m fine,’ and then they land on the streets of Martinsburg with all their bad habits. I don’t see people shooting dope on the corners, but the average person who’s not familiar with that type of lifestyle doesn’t want to shop in town because they look or act inappropriately, whether they’re on drugs or not.”

Downtown housing is a widely recognized problem. Police Captain Swartwood mentions it, and Main Street Martinsburg Executive Director Randy Lewis says, “Sometimes property owners will just get anybody into their property to rent.” Terry Stotler, substance abuse programs coordinator at the VA hospital, brings it up without prompting, too. “The dwellings downtown have reduced in rent over the years and physically they’ve worn down, so you have a lot of people living in those who are on limited means,” he says, emphasizing that he’s speaking as a native resident and not in his professional capacity. “That seems to breed a place for folks without a lot of income who are leaving the VA or need a place to stay—they get drawn into the low-income housing downtown.”

Landlord Lane McIntosh doesn’t have much trouble. He does a simple, free check for criminal history within the county. While he acknowledges that doesn’t cover everything, “My leases are very strict in what they allow and don’t allow,” he says. “Illegal drug use, illegal activity regarding drugs, is not tolerated.” But he knows some landlords could be more vigilant. A property next to him was picked up in foreclosure by an out-of-state owner during the real estate downturn. “Police are there frequently, people loiter in front of the building and on the street, they come on my property, scaring away potential customers for the neighboring commercial space I have there. It appears to be lots of drugs and prostitution in there and the owner could care less what happens.”

So far, what’s working for Martinsburg is similar to what works for Morgantown: a dedicated beat cop and close communication between the business community and police. “Officer Bill Parks patrols on bike, in the car, and on foot—it’s old-fashioned community policing,” Swartwood says. “We’re very appreciative of the merchants that have staked their business claim here in Martinsburg, and it’s our way of giving back.” Main Street holds quarterly meetings that the police chief and Officer Parks often attend. “If any business owners have any concerns, they can direct them right there,” Lewis says. “We do live with the perception every day that downtown is unsafe. It’s not. Do we have a drug problem? Yes, we do. But I don’t think everyone sees it every day. And we have activities people come to—like bands on the town square every Friday in June and July. We go on with our business.”

Stotler wonders if Martinsburg could take a lesson from Minot, North Dakota, where he served in the Air Force and saw similar problems. “They re-zoned above the stores and changed those to service-type businesses, so you had a lot of insurance companies and doctors there rather than residential,” he says. “Minot reinvented itself through that.”

Logan: Can the Business Community Itself be the Solution?

Logan County had 5.0 drug overdoses per 10,000 residents in 2012, 9th among West Virginia counties.

Logan, not quite an hour south of Charleston, hugs the flats along the Guyandotte River. The steep, forested hills press in so close they’re visible even over the tops of the buildings downtown. The five-block-long core of downtown, anchored by the one-way circuit of Stratton Street along one side and Main Street along the other, hosts a couple of bakeries, a café, law offices, jewelry shops, and department stores. It also has its share of pawnshops and dollar stores. But most storefronts are filled, and cars move actively into and out of the 50 cent-an-hour metered spots.

Bernie Sidebottom grew up with his family’s popular Valley Market, a couple miles from Logan in Mount Gay. He always wanted his own place and, in November 2013, he and Carolyn opened Bernie’s Cole Street Deli on a downtown Logan side street. “I was going to decorate the front, put some flower pots out there, make it look attractive,” Carolyn Sidebottom says. “But the guys over at City Hall and the police station said, ‘I wouldn’t be doing that. They’ll steal them—or, you don’t know what you’re going to find in your flower pots.’” “They” refers to addicts on the streets, mostly taking prescription pills. “Then we talked about putting tables outside with umbrellas and chairs and they said, ‘You don’t understand. They’ll just take them.’”

For the casual visitor, Logan feels as safe as most any downtown. But merchants say doing business there can be a challenge. “It’s very uncomfortable. There’s no way I would walk downtown after dark,” Sidebottom says. “In the last six months I’ve seen things I had no idea about.” She’s not the only one who sees it that way. “In the ’70s and ’80s you could feel comfortable walking down the street with your grandmother to the department store,” says Michael Cline, who opened Hot Cup Coffee downtown with a partner in 2011. “Now you can’t walk down the street without getting asked for a cigarette or a quarter.”

As elsewhere, loitering is the visible problem. “We’re on what would be considered the edge of the business district,” says Daniel Johnson, co-owner of Rock City Cake Company, opened in August 2013 to sell creative cupcakes and specialty cakes. “Unfortunately there’s some low-income housing just down the street. It’s great, it’s needed, but it welcomes a crowd—literally, a crowd. They spend most of their days hanging out 50 yards from the bakery.” Johnson grew up 15 miles away in Man and says he’s lost many friends to drugs and recognizes the signs among these people. “And it’s constant. I’ve left the bakery at all hours—4 a.m., 1 a.m., 1 p.m.—and there’s always people hanging out, shoeless, wandering around, fighting and cursing. Most people from Logan don’t care about it because they know they’re harmless. But in the summertime we have a lot of tourists because of the Hatfield-McCoy Trails, and they don’t know. I’m sure it affects the business.”

The Logan city police and county sheriff’s office didn’t return multiple calls for this story. But when asked why the town doesn’t enforce its ordinance against loitering, Mayor Serafino Nolletti has a pretty good answer. “If you write them a ticket for loitering, you’re just wasting your paper. They don’t have anything. They don’t even have a license you can suspend,” he says. “We just try to keep them moving.” He thinks the problem is getting worse, though.

What are the answers for Logan? Nolletti finds hope in a detox facility and a sober living transitional housing facility, both of which opened in Logan in June. Based on her experience, Sidebottom feels stronger enforcement when people are picked up would help. She’s also been disappointed with the drug court, which she said sentenced a good employee to home confinement, an environment that led her back into drugs. But Johnson, at Rock City, says all the officials can do is shovel mud. “If you take a load out, it just fills up with more mud. If they come and arrest, say, those two people, as soon as they pull out, more will come. The problem is so much larger than something the police could do.”

In spite of everything, Johnson says, Logan isn’t dead. “Downtown is having this weird rebirth. We got a new, multimillion-dollar state building a couple blocks from the courthouse,” he says, and notes the hopeful bloom of new businesses downtown. He and Hot Cup’s Cline believe businesses have to be a big part of the solution to Logan’s problems.

“There’s nothing to do in Logan that doesn’t involve going to a club,” Cline says. “One of our hopes when we opened was not just to serve awesome freaking coffee, it was to provide a forum—that level ground where you can meet and talk socially and intellectually.” Hot Cup offers live music, screens movies, and hosts stand-up comedy and poetry readings. It also displays local art and sells quite a lot of it, he says. “We’ve had so many kids who say, ‘This is my sanctuary’—kids who are atheist, Muslim, Buddhist, or gay, who say, ‘This is the only place we can talk openly without getting our cars keyed up.’ That’s a good feeling. That kid who felt he had nobody to talk with, instead of going home and cutting himself at night, he’s going to come here and be himself and not be judged, because I won’t have it.”

The solution for Logan isn’t going to come from officials, in Johnson’s view. “I can’t blame the police, the mayor—it falls on our shoulders as citizens and small business owners to support local business,” he says. “If you want a clean city, clean your storefront up and have pride. If everybody would do their part we would have the cleanest city on Earth.”

Written by Pam Kasey

Photographed by Elizabeth Roth

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Pam Kasey
Written by Pam Kasey
Pam Kasey has traveled, brewed, farmed, counseled, and renovated, but most loves to write. She has degrees in economics from the University of Chicago and in journalism from West Virginia University. She loves celebrating Morgantown and West Virginia as executive editor at New South Media.