The streetscape of downtown Martinsburg, the largest municipality (population 17,500) in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, doesn’t exactly boast an occupancy level one would rate as thriving. But it’s hardly plagued by persistent plywood in the windows of the commercial buildings, and the majority of them look like they benefit from regular maintenance and upkeep.
I mean, look at that street wall. Pretty nice! The wooden structures clearly benefit from bright, recent coats of paint; the cornices and trim around the windows are fresh; the upper floors have curtained windows that suggest occupancy, even if that isn’t the reality (which is often the case, even in healthy main streets). Notice how I keep referencing those windows? It’s amazing how powerfully they can shape one’s impression of the economic health of a commercial district; if they are shuttered, or bare, or broken, or boarded-up, it’s like the building itself is dead—or maimed, at the very least. If the windows manifest some degree of stewardship or care, they give the entire structure a sort of light to the eyes. They avoid a state of architectural zombiehood. Such is the case with Queen Street, which comprises the majority of downtown Martinsburg.
But lurking amidst these well-scrubbed façades are a number of untenanted storefronts. One in particular stands out:
Though clearly unoccupied, the decorative display at least provides some visual interest. But what exactly is it trying to show the average passer-by?
The figures, evoking Halloween, are not likely seasonally related; I took these photos in mid-February. So what are the gravesites and skeletons all about?
They offer a playful if dour assessment on a certain facet of the West Virginia economy: specifically, the state’s film industry. Judging from the peeling, rippled lettering on the tombstone on the left, this window display has been here for awhile.
The message is neither subtle nor profound: the state at one time had its own film office, offering tax credits to production companies (presumably mostly from California) that choose to film in the state. And now they don’t. A quick investigation makes it clear: the State officially ended its film tax credits through legislative act in January of 2018, after an audit indicated that the economic benefit conferred by the credits was minimal. The cited report, from the National Conference of State Legislatures, explains succinctly: the high cost of living and doing business has long made the film industry’s Los Angeles epicenter a challenge in keeping budgets from ballooning. By the 1980s, Canada harnessed its favorable exchange rate, combined it with generous tax incentives, and effective lured a number of motion picture studios to migrate filming to the country, which proved an easy cultural shift. Toronto can easily substitute for New York or Chicago; the oldest parts Montreal can pass for Boston or Philadelphia. And Alberta’s got the mountains covered. As long as it doesn’t require a semi-tropical or desert setting, Canada’s got the film industry covered.
But Canada can’t easily replicate the American South (Dixie), or the Southwest, or LA for that matter. Enter the Pelican State: in 1992, Louisiana decided to replicate the Canadian incentives as much as possible; a decade later, it expanded those incentives. Before long, the most urban parts of New Orleans could substitute for Manhattan, as long as they’re filmed close-in and they can blot out the palm trees. Meanwhile, the balmy climate could imitate southern California as well. Already a popular tourist destination, New Orleans quickly became more popular among Hollywood elite; many of them bought property there. During my time living in the Crescent City in the mid to late 2000s, I encountered Matthew McConaughey on St. Charles Avenue filming Failure to Launch. In the French Quarter, Harry Shearer dined two tables down from us. Just two blocks from where I lived, I could spot Jennifer Coolidge tending her front yard in a palatial home near Coliseum Square; Nicolas Cage owned a similarly spacious domicile in the Garden District, also within walking distance. Much like the gaming industry, more and more states determined it was prudent to incentivize Hollywood to invest simply by locating a crew there for the duration of filming. It added clout to the states’ respective cities and boosted their economies. By 2009, 44 states offered some degree of incentives to the film industry, to encourage short-term investment and, if possible, the hiring of locals.
Perhaps, again like the casinos, the onslaught of state-level incentives made it easy to treat the film industry as a sort of instant panacea after a factory closure. Within a few years, too many states were competing by offering increasingly generous tax breaks to incentivize a finite supply of films. It just didn’t confer enough benefit. By 2018, only 31 states still offered incentives. Some, like West Virginia repealed them; others allowed them to lapse. Even Louisiana has scaled back on its offerings in 2017.
This storefront in Martinsburg is a sour reminder, clearly emblematic of a lobbying effort that was opposed to the 2018 repeal of the film industry tax credits. The peeling decals on that tombstone probably reflect how long this display has sat there, most likely with minimal climate control. And while I am willing to take the audit’s results at its face value, it’s probable that Martinsburg in particular had shown particularly concentrated benefit from the film industry. It’s got an attractive main street, potentially bolstered through façade improvements that Universal Studios or another major entity helped subsidize. That’s gone now.
At the very least, Martinsburg has the geographic advantage of being part of the Eastern Panhandle, the only major collection of counties in West Virginia that are gaining population (the state as a whole declined by 3.2% between 2010 and 2020, more than any of the three states that lost population). But Martinsburg and the nearby community of Charles Town are also fortuitously situated in the outermost, exurban stretches of metropolitan Washington, DC—people escaping the staggering home prices of northern Virginia have been moving to West Virginia in slow but steadily growing numbers for the last thirty years. This may not be enough to bring an Anthropologie or Design Within Reach into Martinsburg’s downtown, but it should keep civic leaders from summoning the undead for the time being. And, given California’s seeming inability to do anything to lower the cost of doing business, the film industry might still opt for a place like Martinsburg in the future, even without the tax credits.