Known for its historical landmarks and unique assortment of restaurants, along with its begonia-bedecked downtown streets and vibrant arts community, Lewisburg is adored and envied in equal measure by its neighbors in southern West Virginia.
Defying statewide trends, Lewisburg’s population continues to inch ever closer to 4,000, even though Mayor John Manchester is quick to point out that the official tally is still 3,830 — the number that appears on the 2010 U.S. Census report. That figure won’t change until next year’s census is complete, but other summaries — like the one reported by city-data.com — put Lewisburg’s population just above the 3,900 mark today. Lewisburg has added more than 1,400 people in the last 40 years, according to figures cited in the city’s current comprehensive plan, which was adopted in late 2015.
So, what is the secret sauce that makes this small town so special?
In a recent interview with The Register-Herald, Manchester said there’s no single ingredient that created the city’s success or that will guarantee its continuation.
To understand one component, he suggested taking a look at another significant number in city-data’s snapshot of Lewisburg — the one that shows almost half of its adult residents have at least a bachelor’s degree.
Home to the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine and only a couple of miles from Greenbrier Valley Medical Center, the city boasts more than its share of doctors and other medical professionals. And as the Greenbrier County seat — with its courthouse and associated offices — Lewisburg naturally attracts lawyers as well.
Acknowledging, “we have a lot of lawyers and doctors,” the mayor said having those professionals and others means that city government can tap educated people for its boards and commissions.
“You need to have a well-balanced board — not carbon copies of each other,” Manchester said.
The orderliness that stems from those diverse, quality boards and commissions, as well as other volunteer-driven civic organizations, is one key to Lewisburg’s popularity with visitors and residents alike.
“Lewisburg has been fortunate in that the efforts it has made to create an attractive environment have paid off,” Manchester said. “Visitors have seen a well-designed town, concentrating on walkability, cleanliness and downtown beautification. Many of those visitors have been impressed enough to sink down roots and become business and property owners, bringing new life into our community.
“Lewisburg has an interest in being attractive to new entrepreneurs, so that when one shop closes, another person with a great idea takes (over) the space.”
Another advantage that Lewisburg has over other West Virginia cities, Manchester noted, is the high percentage of businesses owned by women, something that is reflected in the vitality of Lewisburg’s merchants association.
“Much of the leadership in the Downtown Merchants Association is female business-owner driven,” Manchester said.
And while people may assume that the city initiated and coordinates all of Lewisburg’s many special events and festivals, nothing could be further from the truth.
“Many of the ideas for fairs and festivals have come from downtown entrepreneurs,” Manchester said. “The city’s role has been to participate and support and encourage people with good ideas and to approach problem-solving by saying, ‘Why not give it a chance?’ rather than saying, ‘Don’t do it.’”
One example of a merchant-initiated endeavor is Lewisburg’s First Fridays after Five, which the mayor identified as the city’s “signature event.” He explained that Harmony Ridge Gallery owners Aaron and Monica Maxwell encountered a similar event in their travels and brought the idea home.
First Fridays provides a showcase for downtown businesses with a monthly event in which shops, galleries and restaurants remain open until at least 8 p.m., offering free entertainment and refreshments, along with special sales and services.
“It’s been amazingly successful,” Manchester remarked.
Another volunteer-driven event that takes place in downtown Lewisburg is the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration, recognized as the largest such event in the state. The city’s cooperation with the endeavor includes blocking off traffic from sections of Court and Washington streets to accommodate more than 100 event participants who march from the courthouse to Lewisburg United Methodist Church, where a luncheon and program are held.
That such an event has grown in popularity in a town where more than 90 percent of the population is white is not surprising to the mayor.
“Celebrating the diversity in the community is important to our current health and our long-term health,” he said, acknowledging, “Sometimes the road has been bumpy.”
He pointed to the Greenbrier Historical Society’s current exhibit in the lobby of City Hall as an illustration of just how “bumpy” that road has been.
“The civil rights display shows how hard a struggle it has been for many people to realize their dreams,” Manchester said. “We’ve been fortunate to have strong leadership from all sectors in our community and to tap the understanding, intelligence and goodwill of so many people over the years.”
He gave special mention to the efforts of longtime City Council member Beverly White in bringing the people of Lewisburg together.
“I’ve had the pleasure of serving with her all the years I’ve been mayor,” Manchester said. “She’s brought a level of compassion, goodwill and understanding to our city council and our community that is unprecedented. She has helped… bridge the gap of the diverse populations of Lewisburg. She has been a wonderful role model for our youth because of her work ethic and because of her willingness to address difficult issues.”
And what does the future hold?
Tourism will continue to be a major economic engine in Lewisburg, Manchester predicted.
“I think tourism still has room for growth in this area,” he said. “I’m impressed with our merchants trying to stay at the top of their game — with what is trendy. And our cultural arts community attracts people who visit and those who live here.”
The Greenbrier County Convention and Visitors Bureau extends the reach of the town’s marketing, he said.
Another boost to tourism and the general livability of the Lewisburg area has come from Greenbrier Valley Airport’s switch to SkyWest, with its alliance with United Airlines.
“United flights to Washington, D.C., and Chicago have been a wonderful addition; easy access to those major markets puts us on the map,” said Manchester, who was initially skeptical of the airport’s decision to change airlines.
Other positive developments for the town include plans by international hotelier Hilton to begin construction this spring on a long-anticipated Homewood Suites hotel in the Gateway Commons commercial cluster at Lewisburg’s northern entrance. In addition, Manchester touted the impending transformation of a mixed-use strip of nondescript buildings on south Court Street into a chic shopping and dining plaza through what is being called “The Stratton Alley Project.”
Proposals for that latter development led city council to recently close Stratton Alley, a narrow access way that once stretched from Foster Street to Washington Street, with a dogleg running behind City Hall over to Court Street. Developers plan to use the space once occupied by the alleyway as a plaza that will afford commercial tenants the potential for outdoor dining and more, nestled between the five remodeled buildings and City National Bank’s tree-screened drive-through.
Manchester said potential tenants could include a restaurant, a brew pub and retail establishments.
“Developers are taking an underperforming large space, gutting it and preparing it for build-out,” Manchester said. “It’s a major project. It’s wonderful to have people with new ideas willing to invest in our city.”
It would be difficult, however, for even an optimistic mayor like John Manchester to paint a rosy picture about the anticipated closing of ABB’s Lewisburg manufacturing facility.
The company announced the impending plant closure in October, a move that will cost Greenbrier County 130 well-paid jobs, likely sometime around the end of this year.
“The focus now is to bring in a company that can utilize that wonderful space,” Manchester said, noting the Greenbrier Valley Economic Development Corporation (GVEDC) — which serves as the county’s development authority — is spearheading the drive to find a suitable replacement for the departing ABB.
GVEDC executive director Andrew Hagy told The Register-Herald that ABB’s corporate real estate office has begun marketing the 26-acre property, with an asking price of $1.85 million. The building on the property contains 95,000 square feet of space, with a maximum ceiling height of 16 feet.
“It’s an attractive property; the building is nice and there’s plenty of land,” Hagy said. “I’ve been told there is some interest in the property already, and we’ve offered to assist in any way we can.”
GVEDC has also been working to identify employment options for ABB employees who don’t want to leave the local area. The company is relocating its analytical manufacturing operations to factories in Oklahoma and Canada. Current Lewisburg plant employees will presumably be able to apply for the 102 job openings that are being created at those facilities.
“My goal is that by the time they are moving out, we’ll have someone moving in,” Hagy said.
The conversation with Hagy took place at the site where another local manufacturing facility — the West Virginia Great Barrel Company’s cooperage — is now under construction.
Although the cooperage is located in the Harts Run area of White Sulphur Springs, not in Lewisburg, Manchester is encouraged by this and other recent developments countywide.
“Any time you can have a major new industry in the region, it certainly benefits the whole area,” he said, noting, “Wood products are underutilized in West Virginia.”
Other bright spots in Greenbrier County include extensions of public water in the Sam Black Church area and — in another example of the impact of industry on local quality of life — in the vicinity of the Great Barrel Company’s cooperage, where not only the manufacturing facility but also 50 homes in the surrounding area, along with the Greenbrier State Forest, will receive public water for the first time.
Lewisburg is also on the cusp of a major renovation of its aging regional water plant, listed in the mayor’s annual report as one of the two main challenges (the other being the relocation of Fire Station No. 1) facing the city in the coming year.
“We live in a wonderful community, one that is the envy of many others in the state and around the country,” Manchester summed up in that report, issued on Feb. 19. “Fine communities do not happen by chance; they happen because a wide variety of people work hard to make it that way. Among these community builders are merchants, arts organizations, non-profits, educational institutions, our churches, property owners who take pride in their properties, and people of all sorts who help out in so many ways — our numerous volunteers. I thank you for the good work that you do.”
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