We were pleased to see Jina Belcher promoted to lead the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority for all of the obvious reasons that her résumé and portfolio of work clearly enunciate.
But just as important as her appointment, perhaps more so, is this sharp message: gender diversity in critical economic, community and development leadership positions speaks highly of how we can and should regard one another – that all perspectives are valued and important, that women can, indeed, lead the charge, achieve success for the greater good and bring along others who may not have been previously invited. Their presence at the table of decision makers is refreshing, especially in a county and a city where too many rules have been written and enforced by a reliable stable of older Caucasian men – in many instances, to their own benefit.
Belcher’s appointment is the most recent sign that makes us hopeful for the community’s future – and a change in culture.
Belcher’s story is inspiring – and one that speaks to rolling up her sleeves and getting to work. After starting her own business as a 16-year-old, she was the first high school junior ever to receive the McKelvey Foundation Entrepreneurial Scholarship, given to those who have the vision, creativity and drive to convert a new idea into a thriving business.
A native of Welch, she graduated from Concord University with a B.S. in Recreation and Tourism Management with an emphasis in Event Planning and Promotions. After picking up her diploma, she returned home to help her family expand the only non-profit food pantry in McDowell County. Never one to sit, apparently, she also served as trust systems administrator for seven years at MCNB Bank and Trust Company.
Later, Belcher joined the Coalfield Development Corporation as chief business officer, working closely with interests in government and the private sector as well as entrepreneurs to strengthen social enterprises across Appalachia.
Belcher’s next career step came in February 2019 when she became NRGRDA’s director of business development, later transitioning into the job of deputy director.
And, now, NRGRDA’s executive director.
Just as noteworthy, her appointment was not the first in recent years to indicate that a movement is afoot to change the narrative of a city, a county, a region long reliant on what is now a depressed if not dying coal industry.
We sense a pivot in the ways of old – a turn for the better.
Just a couple of years ago, Michelle Rotellini was named president and CEO of the Beckley-Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce. Like Belcher, Rotellini was born and raised in these parts, and as owner of the highly regarded Dish Cafe, a farm-to-table restaurant in Daniels, she knows the importance of customer experience to the success of a home grown business and its contribution to an identity of a community that tourists remember.
Rotellini’s tenure at the chamber has been punctuated by a vision of inclusiveness, of leveraging the natural advantages of outdoor opportunities, of regarding the region as the perfect landscape for an adventure-based economy, of building a smarter future for the region.
She knows, as she has written in this newspaper as a contributing columnist, that to be successful, we must attract new people to the area.
Rotellini knows what we have been saying to each other for ages, that this little corner of the world holds great promise, immense potential. She knows that we have advantages here that many communities do not including a bona fide Appalachian culture, a burgeoning arts and crafts culture, transportation conveniences including an airport and three major highways – two interstates – that makes our location comfortably accessible. She knows that Beckley does, in fact, need to become a cool little college town – with attendant higher levels of education and fatter paychecks.
She knows and has written about how we could be, should be, taking advantage of an operational shift in businesses, brought about by the pandemic, that is moving towards an employee base that works from home – wherever an employee chooses to call home. Why not here, Rotellini asks.
And, of course, she is right to ask out loud what we all have for too long whispered in talks among ourselves.
But now she is leading from the front of the line. As is Belcher. Their voices and their positions matter.
We are convinced that prospects for a more prosperous future have improved of late, even in the middle of a pandemic that continues to hamper a rise in the local economy.
Certainly, this community, this region, has had women who have left their fingerprints on community and civic affairs, and by no means are we ignoring those contributions. To the contrary, it is on their shoulders that Rotellini and Belcher stand.
And because of that, this, right now, feels a little different.
The question we have to tackle as a community, as champions of a common cause, is what are we doing now to prepare for the first day on the other side of this curtain of darkness.
With Belcher and Rotellini and other visionary women joining the ranks of those who act in the best interests of our communities, we are encouraged.
Indeed, why not here.