A bold vision for the Schoolhouse Hotel’s future, born of its past

By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV

It was the summer of 2018. Two years after a devastating 1,000 year flood struck southern West Virginia. One of the hardest-hit areas in the state was downtown White Sulphur Springs. 

In response, city officials adopted a business plan to redevelop the town.

“The town had a plan, but it needed resources,” remembers Charlie Hammerman. “God put Nanci and I in the right place at the right time.” 

An investment in the future of a famed town 

Charlie Hammerman is the founder of the Disability Opportunity Fund and the original developer of The Schoolhouse Hotel. Photo by RealWV.

Charlie and his wife, Nanci, operate the Disability Opportunity Fund (DOF), a nonprofit organization that acts as a community development financial institution. They planned to do a revitalization project in another area. But when they visited White Sulphur, their plans changed. They found a town filled with people who were ready to invest in their own future. 

“We started by cleaning up main street,” says Charlie. They bought multiple storefronts and worked with local citizens to start businesses such as ACE Hardware (with Adam & Candice Whanger) and Tootsie’s Place (with Kennedy Brooks). Every phase of development included forethought about flood mitigation, since that’s how the project began. 

“For example, we could’ve left the back of the stores like it was–dirt,” says Charlie. “We invested $400,000 in new drainage, asphalt, and parking. The water flowed towards the buildings, not away from them, in the flood.”

In addition to redirecting water flow, they buried the electrical lines on the block. Charlie says, “That was an investment for the next 100 years for White Sulphur.”

The Schoolhouse Hotel. Photo by RealWV.

Next came a passion project. They renovated the town’s former school into the world’s first fully-accessible boutique hotel, The Schoolhouse. They took great care to incorporate the town’s history into the hotel, providing an additional hospitality business in a town which already included The Greenbrier Resort. It was their way of bridging the gap between downtown the the famed resort, building a new future on the foundations of the past. 

Since opening, The Schoolhouse has received rave reviews  from publications including Southern Living, Frommer’s, and Travel + Leisure. Travelers with and without disabilities alike adore its amenities, decor, and rooms. But Charlie hopes folks don’t lose sight of why it was built in the first place. 

“God forbid there’s another disaster, then the whole hotel can be utilized to sleep and feed people in town,” says Charlie. “We put a $300,000 generator on the roof because of the flood. It wasn’t required. The architects wanted it on the ground but we said no. It has to be on the roof in case of another flood.” 

New owners are ‘a perfect match’

While the Hammermans have enjoyed building and running the hotel, “The goal wasn’t for us to run the hotel forever,” Charlie says. “We wanted to find competent hoteliers, competent disability rights advocates, and compassionate caretakers of the community. And we found a perfect match.”

Enter Ron Kuzon of SHWV LLC. He’s a securities lawyer from New York who operates several businesses in the disability industry. He and his partners, who have hospitality experience, purchased The Schoolhouse from the DOF this spring. 

“We got a win for everybody,” Charlie affirms. “Nanci and I aren’t going anywhere. This is our second home. Now we’ve found the perfect partner to run the hotel and let us get back to what we love, the nonprofit side.” 

‘A big deal waiting to happen’ 

In a joint interview with RealWV last week, Charlie and Ron laid out their vision for the hotel’s future.

“We want White Sulphur to be a vibrant community,” explains Ron. “The hotel will be the centerpiece of a destination campus that is fully accessible–hotel rooms, shopping, dining, and the arts.”  

Originally, Ron said he planned to take it slow. “You’ve gotta crawl before you can walk, but in this case we need to run,” he says. 

“That’s right,” Charlie responds. “Put your sneakers on. You’re going to do what we dreamed of.” 

What would a Schoolhouse “campus” look like in a downtown area that is short on available real estate? Ron gave us a walking tour last week while he was in town. Here’s a recap. 

FULLY ACCESSIBLE. “If you’re deaf, blind, have cognitive, or speech issues, including needing a translator, it will all be accommodated during your stay,” Ron says. “Whether it’s shopping or dining or checking in at the front desk or operating the TV in your room, it’s all about providing a seamless accessible experience.” Ron says the accessible travel market is growing exponentially, with all the major chains scrambling to catch up. He points out, “Sign language is the third most used language in the United States today.”

ADDITIONAL ROOMS. Ron plans to add additional hotel rooms. He acquired a house and lot behind the current hotel which will be used for a multi-story new construction. Additional rooms will be built on the top levels. He plans to sell the rooms to adventure travel enthusiasts, including skiers in the winter months. The Schoolhouse will run shuttles daily from White Sulphur to Snowshoe in Pocahontas County.

SHOPPING. On the first level of that new building behind the current hotel, Ron plans to add retail shopping space. He specifically wants to see expanded sporting goods options, especially for golf and skiing.

DINING. Ron believes the more restaurants the town has, the better. He aims to take over operation of the famed, former Bones Diner building in order to offer affordable diner food. “What if we offered a $2 burger that was good quality?” he asks. But he also sees value in luring new chain restaurants.  “Like a Jersey Mike’s,” he says.

PERFORMING ARTS. “There’s enough interest in culture here to make a statement,” he says. He believes White Sulphur can be a companion to Lewisburg in attracting the performing arts–lectures, concerts, and special events. Long term, he wants to make a performing arts center part of the campus, though he says he has not settled on a particular location yet. 

A bold vision for the future

Ron Kuzon is the new owner of The Schoolhouse Hotel. He envisions it as the centerpiece of a disability-friendly campus in White Sulphur which welcomes travelers from around the world. Photo by RealWV.

It’s an admittedly bold vision. How long will it take to achieve, I ask Ron? 

“I don’t play tennis,” Ron says. “No back and forth. You put plans together and do it tomorrow. There’s a sense of urgency.” 

Ron concedes some ideas may not work as envisioned. “But,” he says, “this place is a big deal waiting to happen. I know it.” 

Charlie agrees the opportunities in the Greenbrier Valley are endless. “The future is whatever WHite Sulphur Springs wants it to be,” he says. “We want the quality to keep going up and young people to stay. Generate new businesses. Visit the Greenbrier. Run for mayor or council. We want better health, education, jobs for the people, but we aren’t going to dictate the way it’s done.”

He points to Kennedy Brooks, owner of Tootsie’s Place as a model for future growth. “We were looking for someone to run a food establishment. We met Kennedy and said, ‘Tell us what your passion is.’ Within one day, we took her to the bank and helped her learn how to open a business and do what she does best. Now she’s a young person who stays in West Virginia, gets married, buys a house in town, and has become a staple in the community with a successful business.”

“Charlie has started something really special,” Ron adds. “The hotel is going to be the epicenter of a vibrant community.” 

The Schoolhouse Hotels hosts the second annual STRIDE Gala, benefitting people with disabilities, this Thursday night. For more information, contact The Schoolhouse at 304-536-0999.

Facebook
Twitter
Reddit
Email

Related stories

Give us your feedback