More than 23,000 people voted to select our next Turn This Town Around towns. Meet the winners.
Written by Shay Maunz
A year ago, in our very first issue, we launched a bold initiative called Turn This Town Around. The idea was simple but ambitious: Take a team of people who have skills and expertise in community development and place them in two West Virginia towns that are hungry for change. Over the last year we at West Virginia Focus, along with our partners at the West Virginia Community Development Hub and West Virginia Public Broadcasting, have spent a lot of time in Grafton and Matewan. We’ve watched the people there talk, plan, and make things happen.
Now it’s time for two new towns to get to work. In December 2014 we announced the finalists in two categories—towns with fewer than 1,500 people and towns with between 1,500 and 6,000 people—and opened up voting on our website. More than 23,000 votes later, we have our towns: Whitesville and Ripley. We’ll hold the first meetings there in February 2015 and then watch as these communities work to find ways to revitalize their downtowns, build new business, and diversify their economies. But first, let’s get acquainted.
Whitesville is a tiny town nestled into the southern coalfields in Boone County, around 20 miles from the spot where John Peter Salling first discovered coal in West Virginia. Even in its heyday Whitesville was a small community, but it once thrived. The Main Street was lined with businesses, and travelers driving Route 3 often stopped there for food, gasoline, and shopping. But over the last few decades the area’s coal industry has declined, and Whitesville along with it. “It’s definitely one of those towns that’s seen better days,” says Hollie Smarr, who owns one of the few small businesses still operating in town. “In the last 20 years we’ve seen a slow decline, not just in population but in businesses. In the last few years it seems like everybody has just lost hope.” A few months ago the town’s only grocery store closed. Now the closest place to buy groceries is 25 minutes down the road; most people make a weekly trip to Charleston, an hour away, to shop. “It’s hard,” Smarr says. “It seems like the last thing to go in a community is always the grocery store.”
Smarr grew up in Whitesville, just like her parents and grandparents before her. She moved away to go to college and then pharmacy school, but in 2013 she and her husband decided to move back to her hometown to open their own pharmacy. “It’s one less vacant building in town,” she says. A few months ago she and a friend interested in reviving Whitesville, Adam Pauley, started a community group. “I think we had all reached a point where we were all tired of it,” Smarr says. They called it ROST, or Reviving Our Small Towns, and held a meeting to get the community involved. Around 25 people showed up to talk about what they want to do to make Whitesville a better place to live—and then Pauley pulled out a copy of this magazine, and turned to an article about Turn This Town Around 2014. “I’d watched the progress Matewan and Grafton made over the course of the past year, and we thought that we would be a great candidate,” he says. “I think a lot of people are eager and willing to work and participate, but we realized there is a lot of professional help that comes along with the program, and we need that.” Pauley and Smarr nominated the town for the 2015 round of Turn This Town Around. The community—and then some—turned out to vote: In the end, Whitesville beat Alderson, the closest competitor, by 1,273 votes. That’s more than twice the population of the town.
Area: 0.3 square miles
Median Age: 42.5
Median household income: $19,250
Mean travel time to work: 28 minutes
Notables: Upper Big Branch Miners Memorial; birthplace of musician, playwright, humorist, and poet Billy Edd Wheeler
Ripley sits at the intersection of U.S. 33 and Interstate 77, about halfway between Charleston and Parkersburg. That central location is both a boon and bane for the community—Ripley isn’t so remote that residents feel isolated, but it’s such a short trip to those larger towns that people easily leave Ripley and drive 30 miles to see a movie. “We need to keep our people here to go out and spend money and do things,” says Carolyn Rader, Ripley’s mayor. “I want the kids to grow up and say, ‘Gee, when I was growing up in Ripley I had so much to do there.’”
The town has a modest but active small business community. The Mountain State Art & Craft Fair, one of the top traditional craft fairs in the country, has been held in Ripley every year since 1963—it was founded for West Virginia’s centennial celebration—and has given rise to a handful of local businesses that center around primitive crafts and home decor. But, as in many small towns, the number of local establishments has declined in recent years. “We used to have a bowling alley, we used to have two movie theaters,” says Mike Ruben, director of Ripley’s Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It’s different than it used to be.” Rader says 12,000 cars take exit 132 off of I-77 every day to get gas and food from a chain restaurant just a few miles from downtown Ripley. “We need to get them over the hill and into downtown,” she says.
It was Ruben’s idea to nominate Ripley for Turn This Town Around 2015, but Rader and the rest of the town embraced it with gusto. Rader herself took to the streets to campaign, holding a sign on the side of the road, encouraging community members to vote. At a city council meeting she told some high school students about the campaign. “They said, ‘Mayor, we are on this. Don’t you worry,’” she says. “My daughter teaches at the high school, and she says there were kids in school sneaking into the corner with their cell phones to vote.” In the end, Ripley edged out Hinton by 376 votes. The first question Rader asked of us when she heard the town had won was simple, but also grandiose: “How big can we dream?” she says. “I think Ripley is going in the right direction, but we want it to move forward. We want to think big.”
Area: 3.3 square miles
Median Age: 46.1
Median household income: $25,861
Mean travel time to work: 25 minutes
Notables: Cedar Lakes Conference Center, Mountain State Art & Craft Fair