By C.V. Moore
As various speakers took their turns at the podium, photos highlighting the historical heyday, abandoned storefronts and persistent vitality of six southern West Virginia towns recently chosen for the Blueprint Communities program flashed across a screen.
Beautiful old theaters with sagging signage, walkable but lightly traveled Main Streets and sparkling waterfalls — town leaders hope that cultural and environmental assets like these can become engines for economic growth in southern West Virginia.
At the 2013 Blueprint Communities Summit Monday at Tamarack, these leaders gathered to continue the long work of revitalizing their hometowns in the face of economic distress.
Teams from Bluefield, Hinton, Marlinton, Princeton, Richwood and Sophia launched into a 10-month journey with Blueprint Communities. The collaborative revitalization program is aimed at boosting economic development through fostering local leadership, making connections, and leveraging investment.
Participants receive training, undergo a community assessment and create a plan that can serve as the basis for future action and funding.
“When I think of a blueprint, I think of a model that provides guidance for a plan of action, and that is exactly what this is about,” said Michelle Foster, who chairs the board of the West Virginia Community Development Hub, one of the program’s sponsoring organizations.
Other major funding partners include FHLBank Pittsburgh and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation. The organizations say that the 10 West Virginia communities chosen for the program in the past have leveraged $26.8 million in investment as a result of the program.
A delegation from Sophia bubbled with potential ideas for improvement — from a multi-county excursion train to a farmer’s market to a new hotel — and said they were looking forward to learning the ins and outs of the program.
“The big goal for Sophia is to keep it on the map and make it a mecca that Raleigh County can be proud of,” said John Fanary, owner of the Stage Coach Salon and a member of Sophia’s “Team Winding Gulf Gateway” team.
Keeping once-bustling towns on the map is the goal of many in southern West Virginia. But Kelley Goes, who spoke on behalf of Sen. Joe Manchin, advised the group not to let a crumbling past stand in the way of progress and a focus on the future.
Whether it was the railroad, logging or coal mining, many towns in the state were built to support industries associated with a boom-bust cycle.
“All our communities were once something,” said Goes.
“Once being something does not condemn you to that forever. It gives you strength and the foundation to find our future. I encourage you to not be bound by charming photos of the past, but to use that to find reasons to come, work and stay in this state.”
By the same token, Rep. Nick Rahall urged the communities to stay true to themselves as they search for a new way forward.
“Don’t put a blind eye to what you enjoy most about your hometown,” he said. “Look at what warms the heart of your own townspeople. Find that slice of Bluefield or Marlinton that is fairly unique and go about promoting, developing and growing it without extracting what makes it so unique, charming and attractive in the first place.”
Rahall applauded the group’s commitment to preparing their towns for “the new dawn that is absolutely ready to break before us all.”
That “new dawn” referred to the potential impact of the Summit Bechtel Reserve on tourism and business in the region. Rahall called it “the biggest boon to our state since we discovered coal.”
“The clock is ticking, and the more we have our economic opportunities in a row, the stronger the magnet we have to attract longer visitor stays throughout the Scout season,” said Rahall.
Gary Hartley, community relations liaison for the Summit, described the opportunity as one that many communities will never see.
“This is your chance — the Blueprint Communities, with the emphasis you’re putting on this area here is once in a lifetime. This is the time to seize that moment and move forward. Good luck,” he said.
Hard work and collaboration were major themes of the speakers who cheered on the communities’ efforts.
Ansted Mayor Pete Hobbs, whose town participated in Blueprint Communities in its first round, called the experience a “rewarding and demanding journey.” His team worked on creating Internet-based rural jobs, housing, trails and other initiatives.
As the morning’s summit wound down, participants were treated to an original rock ’n’ roll song highlighting the importance of community development.
Option 22, a band from Princeton involved in that town’s revitalization efforts, sang out questions that remain to be answered: “Can we find a new way? Can we find a better day? Can we break free? Can we turn the page?”
“I think we can. I know we will,” the song answered itself.
“Let’s face it, the state is counting on you,” said Goes. “You will be role models, whether you know it or not. And that’s extremely important to our little state and to future generations.”
For more information, visit www.blueprintcommunities.com or contact Andrea Salina at the West Virginia Community Development Hub at 304-566-7332 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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