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West Virginia panhandle's historic Wells Inn comes full circle

| Monday, May 9, 2011

SISTERSVILLE, W.Va — Charles Winslow was standing on an electrical lift, painting the front of his recently purchased inn, when a pickup carrying tired, dirty natural-gas drillers stopped.

The driver lowered the window and asked when Winslow would reopen the town's only hotel, an oil boom relic that is experiencing a second life from the latest drilling business.

"They were tired of sleeping in their trucks," Winslow said, recalling that day last fall. "They said, 'Look, all we need is a floor. Just open up for us during renovations. We don't mind.'"

Winslow and his wife, Kim, bought the historic Wells Inn in June. The stately but crumbling 116-year-old hotel needed months of renovations. He told the men so. But they, and others, returned in the days following and asked again.

"Finally, we just didn't have the heart to say no anymore," Kim Winslow said. "So we threw some rooms together and opened."

The Wells Inn opened in 1895 on the heels of an oil boom but in recent years fell upon rough times under multiple owners. Now, natural gas drilling is driving a rebirth in Sistersville, a town of about 2,000 along the Ohio River in West Virginia's northern panhandle.

Crews are extracting the gas from the Marcellus shale formation. Charles Winslow came from Marcellus, N.Y., a coincidence he was unaware of before buying the inn.

"We were already under contract before we even heard about it," he said. "But it's been huge for us."

Before moving to West Virginia, the Winslows owned an apartment complex in Albany, N.Y., a building they spent more than a decade renovating, they said. They grew weary of Albany and the crime that accompanies larger cities and searched for another project: a large bed-and-breakfast, located in a small town with friendly residents.

They looked in Punxsutawney. But negotiations to buy the historic Pantall Hotel fell through, they said.

Then, Charles Winslow found online images of the Wells Inn.

"I showed it to Kim and said, 'Ooh, look at this one,' " he said. "She said, 'I'm not moving to West Virginia.' I said, 'But, look, it's cute!' She said, 'I'm not moving to West Virginia.'"

Using Google Street View, he called up a picture of a yellow Victorian-style house in town. Knowing that his wife wanted a home just like it, he showed her. She asked if it was for sale. He said no, and she said: "I'm not moving to West Virginia."

And so it went.

Winslow stopped pestering his wife but didn't give up on the idea of buying the Wells Inn. He found hotels for sale in Ohio, planned a trip to see them and told his wife they'd just stop by Sistersville to look at the inn from the outside.

"We pulled into the parking lot, and lo and behold, there was a "for sale" sign in front of the yellow Victorian," Winslow said. "She fell in love with the house, and we fell in like with the hotel."

They bought the hotel for $350,000, and went to work.

The Wells Inn had been closed for two years and unheated for three, Winslow said. Holes riddled pipes throughout the three-story structure -- they've fixed 260 leaks so far -- and they gutted much of the building's interior, work that took four months.

They expected to open some rooms by March or April. But the gas industry workers made it happen much sooner; they accepted their first guests in September. They opened the kitchen and a bakery, and hired a full-time staff of 15. Thirty-four rooms are available, and they're renovating a honeymoon suite, grand ballroom and swimming pool.

Sistersville Mayor Dave Fox is thrilled with the progress. While people are abandoning other small towns in West Virginia, he said, Sistersville is rebounding.

"The hotel has always been a focal point of town," said Fox, a business owner and boilermaker. "When it's open, it seems everybody is doing well. When it's closed down, it seems like everything is going bad."

By summer's end, businesses will occupy every storefront but one in town, Fox said. A couple of years ago, he said, there were "eight or nine" vacancies.

"The Wells Inn is critically important, not just for Sistersville, but for the surrounding communities, as well," said Beri Fox, who lives in Sistersville and owns the Marble King marbles factory in Paden City, five miles upriver.

"When we have visitors come to Marble King, those are potential buyers, and we need a place for them to stay -- somewhere to be entertained, to feed them dinner," said Fox, who is not related to the mayor. "They're doing a tremendous job revitalizing the facility, and they're doing it without changing its historic appeal."

Charles Winslow said he takes the hotel's role as a regional bellwether seriously.

"A hotel like this used to be the center of the community, and it can be again," he said. His proof is a framed newspaper article from the hotel's grand opening in 1895, with the headline: "Most successful event in history of city."

Winslow plans to open a barbershop in the hotel, and to reopen its basement bar -- the Wooden Derrick -- the only public bar in town before it closed in 2005. Other shops soon to open nearby include a dog-grooming business run by Buddy Jones, 48, a friend of the Winslows who moved to Sistersville from New Orleans to help.

"Two or three years ago, we didn't even have a place for people to stay overnight," Fox said. "Now, with the Wells Inn and the Marcellus shale boom going on, a lot of people are here and staying. It just livens up the city."

It could drive tourism, he said. The town is seeking state money to develop its riverfront, and the Winslows said Sistersville is a destination for people who want to slow down and spend a few days in a calm, small-town atmosphere.

"We've all been burned out," Winslow said. "In Sistersville, if you want to just grab a book and go sit on the banks of the Ohio and watch the tugboats go by, you can."

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