For better or for worse, Beckley, West Virginia is my hometown. When I walk around uptown (as it’s known, since it’s at a higher elevation than most of the surroundings), I’m filled with memories of the way things used to be, and in some cases, frustration with the way they are now. I’m sure I have more of an interest in it than a casual tourist. Even so, there are some reasons to get off the interstates and check out Beckley, West Virginia’s downtown.
Beckley, West Virginia is located at the southern junction of Interstate 64 and 77. To access downtown Beckley, take exit 124 off Interstate 64 or exit 42 off Interstate 77. From exit 42, follow WV Route 16 north into town, then take Neville Street into the downtown area. Beckley’s downtown business district is lined up along Neville, Heber, and Main — one-way roads that zig-zag through the middle of town.
When I visited Beckley on this trip in 2017, I hadn’t been there since 2008. Nine years is a long time, even in a place where change comes slowly. The truth is, I was surprised by how much had changed around Beckley in those nine years. Many places were almost unrecognizable. There were more restaurants and businesses and new construction, especially on US 19.
But then there’s downtown Beckley. After my 2008 visit, I posted a pretty sizeable rant about some of the decisions that have shaped the city in recent decades. I’ll probably do some more venting once again, as I show you around.
Downtown (or more appropriately, Uptown) Beckley has a Main Street, but that’s only part of the main road through town, thanks to a confusing street layout. On Main Street, you’ll find the old courthouse and the United Bank Building — the tallest building in town. Not much has changed on this side of the street.
There’s also a pretty sweet old neon sign hanging from a building nearby. I’m amazed it has survived.
Backing up a bit, let’s zig-zag backward on Main Street, to Heber, then to Neville, where the west end of downtown begins.
Beckley, West Virginia’s Downtown
This statue of the town’s founder, Alfred Beckley, is a fairly new addition to the city. I think the small sculpture atop a large plinth makes him look like a very tiny man.
You’ll find Alfred standing in Jim Word Park, along Neville Street at the west end of Beckley’s downtown business district. It’s a space that was once occupied by buildings that were vacant for decades and eventually torn down. This is something that happens a lot in Beckley — you’ll immediately notice gaps that have been filled by parks, or parking lots, or sometimes nothing at all. It’s always frustrated me that this has been Beckley’s solution to aging buildings — just tear them down.
You’ll also notice a couple of buildings that seem completely out of place in uptown Beckley, West Virginia. The city seems to have far more than its share of court buildings, like this giant federal building that faces Heber Street…
… and across the street, the even newer Raleigh County Judicial Center. This used to be the site of the G.C. Murphy store and other buildings, but about a decade ago the entire block was wiped out, then sat vacant, and was then finally developed, with the Judicial Center opening in 2012.
I’ve always wondered why the old buildings couldn’t have been redeveloped into modern, useful spaces without destroying the aesthetics of the town. And I’ve wondered if it was really necessary to spend $18 million on this corner. Some judges have really nice courtrooms and offices now. Great.
Not far away, you’ll spot another example of a newly-created gap in Beckley’s downtown. This lot is at the corner of Neville and Heber. It’s been known as “The Hole” ever since a fire damaged the buildings that once stood here, leading to their demolition, back in 2012. As of late 2017, the city was looking at ideas to fill the hole — like a plaza where people could sit on steps and eat their lunch.
Just down the hill from Jim Word Park, I noticed something else that’s new – the Beckley Intermodal Gateway, or BIG. Just think of all the different modes of transportation that can converge here! There are cars — it is, mostly, a parking garage. There are buses — it also houses the city’s Greyhound station. You can walk to it, so I suppose that’s another mode of transportation. There’s the train — nope, that arrives 12 miles away in Prince. Airplanes? No. Okay, I guess it’s pretty much just a parking garage and bus station. Oh, and they hold events, like farmers’ markets, on the top floor. Heck, maybe there are even some steps you can sit on while you eat your lunch.
The price tag? $24 million, mostly funded by federal grants. So be sure to stop by and enjoy the BIG, you helped pay for it.
There are still a handful of old, and vacant, storefronts around town. Believe it or not, when I was a kid, we shopped in stores like this. Beckley didn’t have a shopping mall until the late 1970’s, and it didn’t have a good shopping mall until the mid-80’s.
The only improvement that I found somewhat impressive was Beckley Underground. This used to be a creepy, dark passageway to a parking area behind the buildings on Neville Street.
Now, it leads to a collection of businesses that aren’t really “underground”, but they are on the basement level of those Neville Street buildings, facing the opposite direction. The old parking lot was mostly consumed by the federal building, so now there’s a courtyard here, with a few restaurants and other shops. It’s actually a nice use of the space, made more interesting by some smart marketing.
After a short while walking around Beckley, West Virginia, I was ready to get out of town. I devoted the rest of this day to Hinton and Talcott, in Summers County to the southeast.
Here’s a look at a very aimless drive around Beckley, West Virginia.
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If you like to take a walk around small towns while on vacation (like I do), it’s worth your time to explore Beckley. I think you’ll leave with a similar impression: it was once a neat little town with a historic feel, but decades of neglect and odd choices have turned it into a confusing place that’s just a bit disappointing.