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Public weighs in on plan to raze Afton Inn

FRONT ROYAL – A proposal to let a developer tear down the former Afton Inn drew supporters and foes to a public hearing Tuesday.

The Board of Architectural Review plans to consider a request by the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority to demolish the historic structure at East Main Street and Royal Avenue. The EDA filed the request on behalf of Mode Partners and Carter and Burton Architecture.

Dozens of people attended the public hearing. Roughly half of the people who spoke voiced support for demolition. A couple of speakers came out on the fence. Chairwoman Angela Toler noted during the meeting that the board already decided it would put off action on the demolition request until its meeting in September.

Warren County resident Shelley Cook spoke against demolition, saying she would rather see the building remodeled rather than torn down.

“I don’t think we need to tear it down,” Cook said. “I think it can be remodeled and saved and I really hope that this board will listen to that because there’s a lot of buildings in this community that, if we just started tearing them down, well, we would just be here all the time to do that. I think we can make things beautiful again.

William Huck owns property and runs a business in the 400 block of East Main Street.

“I believe history should be preserved if at all possible,” Huck said, adding that the town requires the developers to produce plans and a construction start date before any demolition can occur.

Former councilman Bret Hrbek called the Afton Inn an eyesore and a detriment to the community. Hrbek served on the council when its members agreed to swap the former town hall for the Afton Inn, with the idea that the EDA would market the former hotel building. Finding someone to restore the building has been nearly impossible, Hrbek said. He said it’s important for the space to serve as an anchor for downtown.

Sonja Carlborg said she fell down the middle, supporting demolition and restoration. Carlborg said she would prefer the preservation of the façade and roofline but put less importance on the interior or rear of the structure. Carlborg, a grant writer, asked if other sources could help cover the restoration costs. Carlborg also expressed concerns about Carter and Burton’s more modern designs of some of its projects – approaches she said do not fit with the Afton Inn.

“Our historic district needs to be respected and supported, not just with guidelines but with accountability to rules,” Carlborg said.

Property owner Joe Andrews came out against demolition.

“I have a deep love for historic buildings and all things historic,” Andrews said, adding that a friend has a plan to save the Afton Inn for less than the cost of demolition. “We only have one chance to preserve this history and that falls on you folks. Do the right thing.”

Downtown business owner Craig Laird said he favors the “unfortunate” demolition but recommended that the town put some protections in place to require that the developer stick to a plan and doesn’t sell the property to another entity.

June Rinehart spoke against demolition unless the town has explored every avenue. Rinehart added that she’s seen buildings in worse shape undergo successful restoration.

Rick Novak operates Royal Cinemas on Main Street and advocated for tearing down the Afton Inn.

“What’s so warm and fuzzy about that building?” Novak asked.

Novak spoke in favor of the property trade three years ago. Novak served on the EDA for almost 13 years and spent time working on the Afton Inn development while with the authority. Novak recalled that the former owner of the Afton Inn, Frank Barros, decided not to keep up the property when his initial plans for the building fell through after various public panels and departments “muffed it.” Barros let the building fall into disrepair.

“For those that want to preserve it, and I love your sentiment; I like old buildings, too,” Novak said. “It’s unfortunate but we’ve all watched it deteriorate.”

Mary Ryan asked why, as a community, does Front Royal not invest in its cultural history. The town needs to continue to explore the options, Ryan said. She asked why the town would tear down the Afton Inn before the developers put forth a real proposal. Ryan suggested the town hold a public forum at which residents can give input on what they would like to see happen at the site.

Former mayor Timothy Darr said he was neither for nor against demolition and added that he has options for the property. Darr said he often heard complaints about the lack of action on the Afton Inn.

Dean Corwin said the Afton Inn has been an eyesore for decades.

“It needs to come down,” Corwin said. “It’s past time.”

Mike Grabowski said he doesn’t feel one way or the other about the preservation of the Afton Inn but noted that restoration, if done correctly, could turn the downtown into the community’s economic engine. Grabowski also warned that a pattern of demolition as opposed to restoration would not serve as a catalyst for economic development. Demolition also could make it more difficult for future developers to seek  tax credits when restoring old buildings, Grabowski said.

Curtis Siever grew up in Front Royal and now lives in Winchester. Siever called the Afton Inn a piece of history but acknowledged that the town is late to the game in saving the structure. Siever said the building could be restored.

Former mayor Stan Brooks Jr. said it appeared that it would cost about the same to demolish the structure as it would to protect the façade and renovate the rest of the building. Brooks described the property as problematic.

“But, stand alone, that building is a real challenge,” Brooks said, adding that the town should own and try to develop the entire corner.

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