Turn These Towns Around

More than 16,000 people voted in our unprecedented Turn This Town Around campaign. Meet the winners!


Written by Nikki Bowman
Photographed by Nikki Bowman and Elizabeth Roth

In January, we announced a monumental campaign called Turn This Town Around. Why would we do such a thing? Because we believe our publications are more than just magazines—they are community builders. The future of our state depends on being able to create sustainable and economically vibrant communities. We also know nothing great is created in a vacuum. If our towns are to reinvent themselves, we must stop protecting our turf and partner with each other.

We approached the West Virginia Community Development Hub to provide the expertise, training, coaching, technical assistance, and project management needed to oversee this large-scale experiment, while we at West Virginia Focus will be in the trenches to help rally the community and document the experience. We also know this endeavor is far-reaching and we want to share the experience with as many as possible, so we partnered with West Virginia Public Broadcasting to help tell the story.

The response was incredible. More than 16,000 people voted for their favorite town. In one month we had more than 60,000 visits to our website, wvfocus.com. As soon as the voting ended, the work began, and we hit the road to visit the winning towns of Grafton and Matewan.

Our first order of business was to meet with community leaders, so the West Virginia Community Development Hub’s Executive Director Kent Spellman, Director of Community Strategies Amanda Yager, and Director of Community Engagement and Policy Stephanie Tyree organized a meeting in each of our towns. Ground rules were established: No negativity. Bring a solution when you bring a concern. Leave your personal agendas at the door. Respect differences. Be inclusive and transparent. And look forward, not back.

The purpose of our initial meetings was to hear what members of each community identified as their strengths, assets, and aspirations for improvement, as well as their community’s challenges. We asked them to imagine the town of their dreams—to think big. What would that story look like? The ideas each of these communities shared were thoughtful and visionary, but also surprisingly doable. From that discussion short-term goals and longer projects were identified. Spellman also explained what the expectations were for each community and that community members were going to be held accountable for getting things done. “It is our goal to help communities realize opportunities. This isn’t something we are doing for you. This is something you are going to do,” he said. “The focus is going to be on your town. You are going to have to commit, knowing that the world is watching. We are holding you accountable.”

Spellman was quick to assure attendees that we will be doing what we can to make sure they don’t fail. We want them to be successful. After meeting with several community members in each of our communities, we have faith in Grafton and Matewan, and one year from now there will be noticeable improvements.

To follow our Turn This Town Around story from the beginning, articles have been archived on wvfocus.com.

The Winners: North

Grafton

Grafton is a town that has a story to tell. In a not too distant past, Grafton was a bustling hub for the B&O Railroad. But with the decline of coal and train transportation,
it has been left to make its mark by honoring heroes. Since 1867, it has celebrated those who’ve died while serving our country  by hosting one of the longest-running Memorial Day parades in the nation. It is also the location of the only two national cemeteries in the state. It is best known as the birthplace of Mother’s Day, and the International Mother’s Day Shrine is a top tourist attraction.

The historic district may whisper of a grander past, but the town contains a magnificently rehabilitated railroad station,  and the historic Willard Hotel is ripe for renovation. Tygart Lake State Park is also an asset. The spirit of Grafton is strong, and its citizens are enthusiastic about their town’s potential for rebirth.

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What did the community identify as their aspirations for their town?

  • Transform empty buildings into places that showcase local artisans
  • Restore architecture of historic buildings
  • See buildings on Main Street occupied with businesses
  • Create more parking
  • Develop the city park as a place to hold events
  • Demolish unsalvageable structures
  • Promote physical activity in the community
  • Establish walking and biking trails
  • Create a workout facility with a pool
  • Build a skate park
  • Attract more downtown restaurants
  • Create a music park with a mobile stage
  • Renovate theater on Main Street
  • Re-open the drive-in theater
  • Utilize B&O Railroad Station to its full potential
  • Continue work on community cleanup
  • Improve entries into town
  • Improve connection from downtown to Tygart Lake State Park
  • Create a community garden
  • Create an integrated plan for all historic monuments
  • Create a Rails to Trails initiative
  • Provide more lodging choices
  • Create a new strategic plan
  • Become a location for higher education like Pierpont Community & Technical College
  • Host a bigger Memorial Day celebration and parade
  • Bring back the Grafton Fair
  • Build a small business incubator
  • Build a safe and supervised shooting range
  • Overhaul website

What are the challenges?

  • Money
  • Lack of community support
  • Attitude
  • Apathy
  • Declining/aging population
  • Lack of workforce
  • Poor population
  • Some residents do not put education first
  • Residents do not know whom to approach with problems or ideas
  • Lack of an economic development authority
  • Brain drain—hard to keep younger population in town

Nikki’s Notebook

Here are my thoughts and ideas on turning Grafton around.

  1. Grafton needs a better entrance and signage.
  2. Great architecture, but buildings are dirty. Needs a good scrubbing.
  3. The website is not user-friendly and has not been updated for several years.
  4. The B&O Railroad Station is incredible. Could be a premier wedding destination. Great start-up business potential.
  5. Memorial Day celebration should be knock-your-socks-off best in the country, attracting national attention.
  6. Use Mother’s Day connection to the extreme. How about a restaurant called Mother’s or Hot Mama’s?
  7. Hold a Mother’s Day parade and invite groups of women from all over the country to compete for most outlandish costumes and march in celebration of the holiday. Use the Sweet Potato Queens (sweetpotatoqueens.com) as a model. (But I want to be the first grand marshal!)
  8. Approach Hallmark about a unique gift shop or card museum.
  9. Create a museum that celebrates women in West Virginia.

The Winners: South

Matewan

This small southern town has some fighting power. That may not come as a huge surprise given that it became notorious for the Hatfield and McCoy feud and the infamous Matewan massacre. But this close-knit community of 500 has put its feuding days aside and is rallying behind its people’s heritage to turn the town around.

Not only is Matewan blessed with a history that recently gained international attention with the release of the award-winning Hatfield and McCoy miniseries, but it was also the subject of John Sayles acclaimed movie entitled Matewan about the 1920 coal miners’ strike. The Matewan Depot is a treasure trove of information, and even the massive floodwalls that protect the town from the ravages of the Tug River tell the town’s story. The Hatfield-McCoy Trails, another tourism attraction, bring in tens of thousands of visitors each year.

More than 40 people attended our first informational meeting, and they came ready to share ideas. From the opening of a museum dedicated to miners to the renovation of the historic jail into a gift shop to the construction of an amphitheater, the community’s vision is forward-thinking and tourism-driven.

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What did the community identify as their aspirations for their town?

  • Opening a West Virginia Mine Wars Museum in Fall 2014
  • Better leveraging of Hatfield-McCoy Trails
  • Build an amphitheater
  • Restoration of jail and transformation into a gift shop selling local art with a photo booth so people can dress like a Hatfield or McCoy
  • Clean up Tug riverfront and develop river for tourism
  • New branding, signage, website development
  • Redirect traffic into a walking-only historic district like Colonial Williamsburg with reenactors
  • Development of after-school programs to engage youth
  • Develop more local growers for a local farmers’ market
  • Build a skating rink
  • Need an indoor swimming pool and workout facility
  • Create more things for tourists to do, like miniature golf, bars, etc.
  • Provide free space to artists in vacant buildings
  • Create more lodging in historic buildings
  • Develop a community kitchen
  • Create nightlife options
  • Utilize vacant high school for arts venue or low-income housing

Community-identified challenges facing Matewan:

  • Road layout doesn’t take visitors to the main street
  • Businesses worry about locating in Matewan because they see it as a drive-by community
  • Lack of local investment in developing businesses and the town
  • Lack of local confidence and risk taking
  • Lack of activities for youth
  • Population dwindling: youth and working-age people are leaving
  • Housing quality is poor
  • Job options limited
  • Few farmers in local area

Nikki’s Notebook

Here are my thoughts and ideas on turning Matewan around.

  1. The river is an important part of Matewan’s history and the riverfront could be developed more.
  2. Website hasn’t been updated. Must be redesigned and updated regularly.
  3. The Hatfield and McCoy tug of war over the Tug River is brilliant. Market the bejeebers out of that.
  4. Signage needs to be better at entrance into town.
  5. The Matewan Massacre play is also a great asset that could draw more people to town.
  6. Trains are rolling through the town regularly. I’m concerned about noise level if an amphitheater is built near the tracks.
  7. Do research on other towns in West Virginia, like Sutton, that have built amphitheaters to see if they’ve seen a good return on their investment. Money may be better spent elsewhere.
  8. The vacant school is not being used to its potential. A theater is needed. Why not use the one in the high school?
  9. Lodging is desperately needed.
  10. The green space near the floodwalls could be beautified.
  11. Every time I’ve wanted to photograph the street by the train tracks where the shootout occurred, there have been several cars parked there. Close it off to parking.
  12. Love the jail!
  13.  There are great opportunities for a distillery or a microbrewery in town.
  14. Can the library move to one of the vacant buildings in the historic district?
  15. Matewan is a marketer’s dream. Create a marketing plan to grow tourism.

What’s Next?

Next we will hold town hall meetings in each of our towns, and the entire community will be invited. Each town will have a spring cleanup, community collaboration teams will be created, and we’ll begin on some of the projects that have been identified. Stay tuned. We’ll be updating the Turn This Town Around page on our website, wvfocus.com, regularly with photos and more information.  Remember: 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, so let’s turn our towns around!

We welcome lively discussion and all opinions; toward that end, it is our policy to omit any and all comments that come to our attention containing abusive or personal attacks, or material that is unlawful, obscene, defamatory, threatening, harassing, abusive, slanderous, or hateful.

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