By Cody Neff REGISTER-HERALD REPORTER | Posted: Sunday, April 12, 2015
On a bright Saturday, the sun pounded down on the town of Helen. The sound of boards hitting metal resounded as volunteers tossed scraps into a giant garbage bin. That distinct old-building smell filled the air as volunteers scurried about like little mice.
Their goal? To seal up the decades-old apartment complex in Helen in a process called “architectural mothballing.”
“Mothballing is a process in which you have a structure that is structurally sound, but you don’t have the time or the resources available at that moment to restore it,” New River Gorge Regional Development Authority Extension Agent David Rotenizer said. “Mothballing is a process where you stabilize a building so you can go back at a future time and restore it. If you don’t mothball it, it can decay further.”
As for its history, volunteers couldn’t agree on whether the complex was built in 1922 or 1926. The future of the apartment complex, however, is up to the residents of the old coal town, Rotenizer said.
“The WeGrow Corporation now owns the property and they’ll decide with the community about the property’s future,” he said. “As an extension agent, I’m here as a resource to help them explore opportunities. They may want to turn the complex into a community meeting room. They may want to rent some of the rooms out as a source of income for the group.”
As volunteers moved chunks of desks, entertainment centers and old beds out of the rooms, angry residents sat on their porches and shouted at them.
“You’re wasting your time,” one woman said. “Why not just tear the thing down?”
Tearing down the complex isn’t an option, Rotenizer said.
“People have to realize that, in order for us to tear it down, that would have cost the county between $40,000 and $60,000 to tear it down and haul the debris off to an approved landfill,” he said. “The cost of demolition would cause a lien to be placed on the property.
“Someone could pay off that lien and have the property. What are the odds that someone would pay that kind of money for a small lot? I don’t think demolition is even an option.”
The Coal Heritage Area Authority paid to have the property looked at to decide whether it could be saved, Rotenizer said.
“We do have to do more, like secure the roof a little, but overall it’s as good today as the day it was built,” he said. “You can go up on the second floor and jump up and down if you want. You don’t see structures like this still standing today.”
By the afternoon, almost every room in the complex was cleaned out and swept.
“I hope we can get it all cleaned out and totally sealed up and secured,” Rotenizer said. “We’ll have the yard cleaned up and have it looking really nice.
“The complex went into an abandoned state for a while, and we’re trying to turn that around so that it looks better on the outside.”
Rotenizer said there won’t be another day of volunteers. There’s no need. He was a man on a mission and he was determined to get the complex sealed up, he said.
“This is an excellent project and this is what we have to do in southern West Virginia,” Rotenizer said. “We have to strengthen communities.
“That’s what this is about. It’s people working together to decide where they want things to be for the future. Things have to happen now for the future.”
Rotenizer went back to slinging boards from an old trash bin. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and smiled. A cushy desk job isn’t for him, he said.
“This is in my blood,” Rotenizer said. “This helps people. I like that. I like to say that I made a difference with all of these people who are volunteering today.”
One of the volunteers was a pigtailed young woman from the Preservation Alliance of AmeriCorps.
“The town has a relatively small population now, but when coal was booming, they needed this apartment complex to house eight families,” Tiffany Rakotz said. “I would really like to thank everyone who helped make this happen. We’ve gotten a lot of support from various entities. I just really appreciate everyone who has helped.”
Rakotz was helping lead the efforts to seal up the building. Her sponsors came from the Coal Heritage Area Authority’s executive director and Sherrie Hunter of the Solid Waste Authority.
“We’re a supporter group,” Executive Director Christy Bailey said. “This is going on all throughout the southern coalfields. Our mission is to preserve, protect and promote the coal heritage of the region. Helen is a remarkably intact little coal camp. You drive through and you just know it was a coal camp.
“Anything we can do to preserve the town’s structures becomes a huge asset,” Bailey added. “We’ve got plans on the drawing board to develop a walking tour of Helen. Heritage Tours like authenticity, and this is certainly an authentic town.”