Meet the eight towns competing in our monumental Turn This Town Around campaign—a historic partnership between West Virginia Focus, the West Virginia Community Development Hub, and West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
Written by Nikki Bowman
Have you ever driven through a town where once majestic buildings stand as bruised and battered stewards and thought, “What would it take to turn this town around?” Well, we think about it—a lot. And we aren’t the only ones. In close partnership with the West Virginia Community Development Hub and West Virginia Public Broadcasting, we are launching an ambitious undertaking. We want to find out what it will take to turn our towns around, and we are going to document it every step of the way.
The mission of our company, New South Media, Inc., is to change perceptions about our state, not just how others look at us, but how we look at ourselves as West Virginians. We do that by telling our state’s story—one town, one person, and one business at a time. We connect our readers with our communities and the people and businesses that work endlessly to champion them. In every issue of this magazine, we are going to take it one step further by including one feature that will follow our Turn This Town Around campaign. With your help, two towns will be chosen—one from the northern part of the state and one from the southern part. The two towns you select will become living laboratories. Our goal is to help ignite change, to rally the community with a set of goals and deliverables, to showcase the successes and failures, to identify challenges, and to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
The West Virginia Community Development Hub, one of the state’s leaders in the field of community development, will coordinate the effort. The Hub will connect the two communities with training on civic engagement, leadership development, and project management; provide a community performance coach; help them assess their strengths and vulnerabilities; develop a community vision and plan; and link them to technical assistance providers in key areas like civic engagement, the local food movement, community sustainability, and organizational development.
According to the Hub and its Community Building Toolkit, there are common tenets that enhance the success of community-building efforts.
- Broad-based community engagement in decision making
- Creation of community collaboration teams
- Mapping and leveraging community assets
- Achieving clarity of purpose on a path forward
- A non-linear, Design-Do planning process that focuses on short-term goals
- Shared leadership and accountability
- Connection to regional trends and issues
- A willingness to take risks
Community revitalization doesn’t just happen, and it certainly doesn’t happen overnight—that’s part of the challenge. Historically community improvement initiatives stall at the implementation stage. Every community has development plans sitting on the shelf. When plans aren’t implemented and momentum stalls, many concerned community members throw their hands up in frustration and quit. But we know the most valuable resource isn’t money. It’s people—people who care about their communities. We must help them fuel the flames of change. Every community has people who care, but sometimes we are overwhelmed by the challenges and don’t know where to start. That’s where our extensive list of partners comes in. Together we can be catalysts for change.
Our Turn This Town Around revitalization campaign will look at the restoration and repurposing of existing buildings and assess economic resources, employment opportunities, and ways to expand the tax base and keep money circulating in the community. We will help our communities create programs to prevent blight and abandonment, improve livability by attracting businesses and social activities, and foster incubators for entrepreneurship and the arts. We will reach out to our local schools, encourage and embrace involvement from the youngest among us, and in doing so, hope to inspire them to see their state as a place of opportunity.
There will be naysayers. Jack McCall, the author of The Small Town Survival Guide, calls them the “Coffee-Break Cynicism Society.” You know the types. The ones who are always complaining, the ones who are the first to say something can’t be done or “That’s not the way we do things.” Guess what? They aren’t the captains of this ship, and there isn’t any room on the boat for those who would rather sink.
We aren’t just going to talk about the problems and challenges. We are going to do something about them—and we are going to do it together and document the entire experience. And when we say we, we mean everyone. There are many groups and businesses in our state that are focused on improving West Virginia. Groups like Generation West Virginia, a network of young talented leaders focused on solving the “brain drain” issue, or Create West Virginia and their grassroots efforts at building creative communities (just look at what they did in 2013 during their conference in Richwood), or the Main Street West Virginia program, helping a dozen communities improve their downtowns. The West Virginia Center for Civic Life trains people across the state to come together to discuss and resolve challenges. There’s also Imagine West Virginia, a group dedicated to making policy recommendations that would positively impact the state, the Tamarack Foundation, a nonprofit that strives to nurture artisan entrepreneurs, and the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition, a group working to build our agricultural economy, not to mention the West Virginia Small Business Administration or the West Virginia Small Business Development Centers. And although the list goes on and on, we are all concerned with one thing—building a better state. If we all row our boat in the same direction, we will accomplish more and reach our destination faster.
We are possibilitarians. Together we can make the possibilities reality. There are no easy answers. There is no quick fix. We cannot bring back the past, but we can envision a brighter future and work toward that goal. There is no time to waste. Let’s turn our towns around.
The Contenders: North
A former hub for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, Grafton is the county seat of Taylor County. South of U.S. Route 50 and about 15 miles east of Interstate 79, the Grafton Downtown Commercial Historic District includes 72 buildings, including the Grafton Hotel, B&O station, and Andrews Methodist Church—the International Mother’s Day Shrine. “Grafton used to be a busy, booming railroad town, but the railroad slowed down and the economy isn’t what it used to be,” says Brennon O’Sullivan, superintendent at Tygart Lake State Park. “There’s pictures in the local library of hundreds of people walking around Main Street, but today we could use more businesses in downtown.”
Brennon says the city does its best to work with limited resources. “There’s great potential in Grafton because of the surrounding areas. We are reopening the swimming pool this summer, and the state park is now open year-round.” City Manager Kevin Stead says, “The city of Grafton is excited about this wonderful opportunity to not only showcase our assets and possibilities, but to identify our limitations and explore how we can address them in a positive way.”
- Population: 5,164
- Area: 3.8 square miles
- Median age: 41.7
- Median household income: $29,232
- Mean travel time to work: 24.9
High school graduates: 49.8%
Associate’s degree: 4.5%
Bachelor’s degree: 9.6%
Graduate degree: 2.8%
Notables: Tygart Lake State Park, Grafton National Cemetery, Anna Jarvis House, Grafton City Hospital, Arch Coal
This incorporated Wetzel County town is off the beaten path and the only known town in the country to be called Hundred. It was named for Henry Church, who lived to be 109 years old and was known as “Old Hundred.” Hundred was a B&O flag stop and experienced an oil and gas boom in the late 1800s.
Linnea Kumher, director of the Hundred Public Library, lives about six miles outside of town, and says she loves working in the area. “There is so much potential. I just wanted to stay here and do anything I could to help,” she says. She says the Wetzel County town is growing and residents young and old are invested in making the tiny town a better place. There are clubs for kids to keep them out of trouble and new stores. Still, the town needs new housing and a community center, she says. “We’d like to have a place where people can walk indoors in the bad weather,” Linnea says. “And we need a main building like a community center very badly. Right now we have to either hold meetings in churches or sometimes the high school, but they are already so busy and they have a very small parking space.”
- Population: 299
- Area: 0.50 square miles
- Median age: 44.1
- Median household income: $32,500
- Mean travel time to work: 38.5
High school graduates: 57.8%
Associate’s degree: 12.8%
Bachelor’s degree: 2.8%
Graduate degree: 3.2%
Notables: Hundred 4th of July Parade, Sweet Melissa’s Restaurant, oil and gas industry
Petersburg is a gateway to the Potomac Highlands, with popular outdoor destinations like Blackwater Falls State Park, Canaan Valley Resort State Park, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Smoke Hole Caverns, and Seneca Rocks within easy driving distance. It is the county seat of Grant County, and the Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad will take you from the South Side Depot in Petersburg to Romney. Although outdoor adventurists flock to the area, they often drive through the town on their way to other locations. But Petersburg is at the center of it all, says Hanna Weaver, executive director of the Grant County Convention & Visitors Bureau. Hanna lives and works in Petersburg and says the area is a hub for tourism—from fishing to train rides to just plain exploring the great outdoors. “It’s a really beautiful area,” she says. But the town could use a stronger downtown presence. “Petersburg is laid out differently. There’s a lot of historic homes, but there’s not really a downtown,” Hanna says. “That would be nice to have, like a lot of other towns have—like Shepherdstown.”
People often stop by the visitors’ center in the South Side Depot and then walk to the gift shop next door. Then they cross the street to a local restaurant. But after that, they get in their cars. “That’s one thing visitors comment on when they come down here,” Hanna says. “There’s not really a strong Main Street with shops you can walk to. It’s scattered
- Population: 2,467
- Area: 1.62 square miles
- Median age: 47.1
- Median household income: $33,352
- Mean travel time to work: 21.4
High school graduates: 46.6%
Associate’s degree: 6.6%
Bachelor’s degree: 7.7%
Graduate degree: 3.7%
Notables: Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad, Spring Mountain Festival, outdoor destinations, the river
Rowlesburg is situated on the Cheat River in Preston County, just 13 miles south of Kingwood. A former coal town, it now has a small, dedicated historic district.
Lucille Grim says there’s a lot to be proud of in Rowlesburg, and volunteers have been working hard to bring new life into the town, working on multiple museums in an effort to boost tourism. “There is a lot of history here. It’s an old, old town, and it was a railroad town, but when the railroad left it was all downhill for us,” she says, adding that life there hasn’t been the same since the 1985 flood.Lucille, curator of the Rowlesburg Area Historical Society, has lived in the same house in Rowlesburg for nearly 50 years. “People keep coming back to retire—and they are helpful for a couple years—but when you retire you lose your zip. We need some young people.” She says the area desperately needs more jobs, too. “There just isn’t any money.”
- Population: 584
- Area: 1.1 square miles
- Median age: 48
- Median household income: $37,917
- Mean travel time to work: 36.3
High school graduates: 57.5%
Associate’s degree: 2.1%
Bachelor’s degree: 10.6%
Graduate degree: 2.7%
The Contenders: South
The Greenbrier River divides the town of Alderson into two parts with portions in both Greenbrier and Monroe counties. Located 15 miles south of Lewisburg, the Alderson Historic District has 165 structures and a restored 1896 rail station. The historic federal prison camp is the town’s largest employer, with Martha Stewart, “Squeaky” Fromme, and Billie Holiday being a few of the infamous women to be incarcerated there.
Margaret Hambrick, treasurer of Alderson Main Street and volunteer grant writer and public information officer for Alderson, sees great progress in the town’s adoption of a green team and receipt of a recycling grant, but acknowledges there’s not enough economic development. “We’d like to see more things right here, which would have more people living here, too,” she says. “We need to draw more people to the town rather than serving as a bedroom community for Lewisburg.”
- Population: 1,184
- Area: 608 acres
- Median age: 42.8
- Median household income: $26,875
- Mean travel time to work: 29.8 min
High school graduates: 38.2%
Associate’s degree: 5.1%
Bachelor’s degree: 13.2%
Graduate degree: 5.1%
Notables: Alderson Historic District, Alderson’s Store, Alderson Memorial Pedestrian Bridge, C&O Railroad Depot, Alderson’s Annual Fourth of July Celebration, The Greenbrier River
Hillsboro in Pocahontas County is most famously known as the birthplace of world-renowned author Pearl S. Buck. The two-story Dutch-style house where Pearl was born in 1892 is on the National Register of Historic Places and is now a museum. Hillsboro is also the site featured in the movie Patch Adams, where real-life Dr. Patch Adams purchased land in West Virginia to build a medical clinic based on his unique philosophy of doctor-patient interaction.
“We’re a small town, but we think we’re pretty lucky to be living here,” says Bill Beard, county commissioner and long-time farmer. “We do lack employment—that’s probably why we have as few people as we do in our area. We devote a lot to tourism.
- Population: 260
- Area: 0.36 square miles
- Median age: 39.3
- Median household income: $16,953
- Mean travel time to work: 20.9
High school graduates: 50.2%
Associate’s degree: 3.2%
Bachelor’s degree: 3.2%
Graduate degree: 0%
Notables: Little Levels Heritage Fair, The Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Museum, Gesundheit! Institute, The Pretty Penny Cafe, Beartown State Park, Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park
Perched on the banks of the Tug Fork River and Mate Creek in Mingo County, Matewan was the site of the Battle of Matewan, also known as the Matewan Massacre, between Baldwin-Felts detectives and coal miners. The event inspired the movie Matewan. The town also figured prominently in the infamous Hatfield and McCoy feud. The small town has flooded 36 times since 1949, and in 1997 a floodwall was built.
“Matewan is a unique little town, and the town’s people have done a great job of preserving Main Street and historical areas,” says Jeffrey Lusk, executive director of the Hatfield-McCoy Trails Authority. “It’s also a great connection to the Hatfield-McCoy Trails.” But Jeffrey says the town could use some assistance, too. “Matewan needs more entrepreneurs, more capital and vision, people who will make the investments and build up the retail infrastructure to turn those old buildings into a thriving Main Street. The opportunity is there. Thirty-six thousand Hatfield-McCoy trail riders come through the town every year. Matewan just needs a grassroots effort to spur some excitement about entrepreneurs building the retail and lodging infrastructure.”
- Population: 499
- Area: 358 acres
- Median age: 45.4
- Median household income: $36,750
- Mean travel time to work: 28.4
High school graduates: 40.8%
Associate’s degree: 2.5%
Bachelor’s degree: 5.9
Graduate degree: 2.4%
Notables: Matewan Depot, Hatfield-McCoy Trail System, Historic Matewan House Bed and Breakfast, Tug Fork River
Pineville is the county seat of Wyoming County. Castle Rock, a looming 200-foot limestone outcropping that resembles a castle, is a local landmark beside the public library. The area is known for its close proximity to Twin Falls State Park and the Hatfield-McCoy Trails.
“What makes Pineville a wonderful place is that it’s full of passionate, caring people,” says Kathy Brunty, Wyoming County Family Resource Network director. She says the area would benefit from public transportation and more activities for local youth. For the most part, she says, kids have no place to go.
- Population: 668
- Total area: 0.84 square miles
- Median age: 49.4
- Median household income: $48,158
- Mean travel time to work: 17.9
High school graduates: 29.9%
Associate’s degree: 3.2%
Bachelor’s degree: 6.8%
Graduate degree: 8.9%
Notables: Twin Falls State Park, Hatfield-McCoy Trails, RD Bailey Dam, Horse Creek Lake, Clear Fork Valley Golf Course
Voting for Turn This Town Around is now closed. Look for the results in the March/April issue of West Virginia Focus.