WHITE HALL — David Biafora stepped back from the podium to let the laugh build.
That was right after he said, “We’re gonna save Marion County some gas.”
The laugh from the audience gathered in front of the Middletown Mall was a knowing one.
That’s because residents here have grown long accustomed to making the Interstate 79 hop — Morgantown to the north, Clarksburg to the south — for restaurants, movies, sports bars and serious, big-ticket shopping.
It was a different story in 1969. In that Aquarian year of economics and commerce, the Middletown Mall went up.
And when it went up, people from all over poured in. The Mountain State’s first-ever enclosed shopping mall was a destination.
Senior citizen groups in Braxton County chartered buses for shopping excursions.
The Miss West Virginia Pageant was held there.
And, come Christmas shopping time, the traffic was known to stack a couple of miles down U.S. 250 to Wood’s Boat House while people waited to get into the parking lot.
These days, the mall is all but empty. The stores that once thrived moved out years ago. So did the government offices that followed.
Two years ago, a man launched a Go Fund Me account online in hopes of buying the structure, so he could convert it to an indoor water park.
He generated a passel of “Why not?” compliments and a screen-full of appreciative chuckles, but no real fiscal backers.
Earlier this year, David Biafora and his brother, Richard — the siblings are successful business developers based in Morgantown whose subdivisions, strip malls and other commercial enterprises dot the region — scooped up the bankrupt mall for $13.7 million.
On Wednesday, they explained what they’re going to do with it.
They unveiled plans for a reimagined “Middletown Commons” — think Suncrest Towne Centre, in Mon County — blending shopping, commercial and medical offices, residential housing and a community center.
Guy Ward, the White Hall mayor who also serves in the House of Delegates, said Middletown Commons could once again make his town a destination.
Just as the Middletown Mall worked nearly 50 years ago, he said, Middletown Commons can work today.
“I’ve been thinking about this mall since I was elected mayor five years ago,” he said. “Today’s a first, big step.”
White Hall may have made an even bigger step 20 years ago. That was when boosters of the then-unincorporated community petitioned the state to turn the collection of homes and businesses into a full-fledged town.
Now, it’s a business-heavy town with no Business and Occupation Tax, its mayor said.
Before the ceremonies Wednesday, the Marion County Commission signed the initial letters of engagement that will begin the process of transforming the confines of Middletown Commons to a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District.
The TIF will also take in the nearby campus of the West Virginia High Technology Foundation.
“The TIF changes everything,” Ward said. “You won’t recognize this place in the next five years.”