The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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October 25, 2013

Richwood rallies behind conference

RICHWOOD — A group that tries to improve local economies in the state has brought its annual conference to Richwood, where long-shuttered storefronts have been revived for the first time in decades.

The Create West Virginia conference held prior gatherings at large venues in places like Charleston, Huntington or Stonewall Resort in Lewis County. But the Charleston Daily Mail ( reports the goal of this week’s conference in Richwood is to show any small town can be transformed.

Organizers turned empty Richwood storefronts into an artisan village. Each shop showcases a different entrepreneur or idea.

“I love it — it’s shades of older times,” Richwood Mayor Bob Johnson said after the conference opened Thursday.

Richwood’s population was about 5,300 in 1955 but steadily declined after coal mines started shutting down for good in 1982. Conference director Rebecca Kimmons said timber and hardwood industries have kept the economy going.

Create West Virginia is an independent, grassroots group focused on building creative communities, companies and centers of learning geared toward an “innovation economy.”

The conference’s theme this year is “The Future,” and bringing it to the Nicholas County town “is a real leap of faith,” she said. “There’s a lot of grieving in Richwood.”

The first step is to get people to open their minds to the opportunities in the town.

“Basically, what we have to do is convince people it’s possible,” Kimmons said.

While the conference is using Richwood as an example, she said other communities can benefit.

“We’re not necessarily trying to revive Richwood, what we’re trying to do is set a model for towns like Richwood all over Appalachia to see what they have and what their assets are,” she said.   

Before the conference arrived, some Richwood buildings were filled with equipment and furnishings left behind by previous owners.

In September, volunteers began scrubbing floors, washing windows and clearing out furniture.

“I’ve never heard of a conference coming into a town and not just talk the talk, but walk the walk and really give this area a shot of B-12,” former Richwood Mayor Bob Henry Baber said. “It has gotten the people to step up and say, ‘It’s time to get out the paintbrushes and really rock it because we want it to look as good as ever.”’

Baber said the conference’s vision inspired him to buy a former department store building and convert it into an artisan workshop.

“The renaissance of Richwood has begun,” he said.

Among the themes of the conference, which runs through Saturday, are diversity, entrepreneurship, education, quality of place, innovation and technology. Baber hopes the ideas shared help attract more businesses in the years ahead. He said an ample supply of commercial space is available.

“Everything is for sale in Richwood for 20 cents on the dollar,” he said. “We want to attract entrepreneurs and altruistic retirees, all walks of life. Come one and all, we want them to help reboot this town.”

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