West Virginia’s young people are fleeing the state. How do we get them to return?
Kent Spellman, executive director of the West Virginia Community Development Hub, is at the United Mine Workers Association headquarters in Matewan, speaking to a group of 75 people. He’s at the front of a room dotted with old photographs of coal miners, next to oversized notepads filled with important-sounding phrases: civic engagement, health and wellness, business development.
“Here in West Virginia, we are really, really proud of our ability to survive all sorts of challenges and adversarial situations, whether it’s floods or declining population or the railroad closing or whatever it is. We are really proud of our ability to survive,” he says. “I’m going to challenge you to quit being proud of surviving. Start being proud of thriving.” He’s talking to community members who came out for Matewan’s first big Turn This Town Around meeting in April. He said the same thing a week later in Grafton, to more than 130 people assembled for a similar meeting at Grafton High School. Each time, the thought hung in the air for a few beats, heads nodding in the crowd, before he moved on.
In January we announced a monumental campaign. The name: Turn This Town Around. The goal: work with community development experts, and state media outlets to revitalize two communities by rallying their people, businesses, and public officials in the name of a common goal. The idea is to help each town identify projects that will improve their communities, lead them to the tools they need to complete them—and document the whole process. At our company, New South Media, Inc., we believe the future of our state depends on being able to create sustainable and economically vibrant communities. And we think we can help.
Our experts-in-residence are the team at the West Virginia Community Development Hub, a statewide nonprofit that has been working on community development since 2008. Our media partner is West Virginia Public Broadcasting, which will help us tell this story in audio, video, and online. And we documented it in West Virginia Focus.
It started with eight communities and a vote. In January more than 16,000 people weighed in to select our two towns from that pool of eight: Matewan, in Southern Mingo County, and Grafton, in central Taylor County.
These two West Virginia towns are very different. Matewan’s history is in coal miner rebellions and feuding families, while Grafton is the birthplace of Mother’s Day. Grafton’s population is 10 times larger and it’s situated near an interstate, while a trip to Matewan means miles of winding mountain roads. But while their geographies, economies, and histories are as varied as those of any two random places, a common thread runs between them: Each town was once a beautiful, booming, bustling place, and each has seen a decline over the last few decades. And each community is filled with people who want to return their town to what it once was—or at least get it back on track.
“I want people to see Matewan the way I remember it looking when I was a kid here back in the ’70s and ’80s,” says Jeff Hatfield, a city council member who was born and raised in Matewan and moved home a few years ago after spending a decade away. “I want them to see a nice little clean town that they’d like to spend time in.” Gigi Collett, who’s on the Board of Trustees for Grafton’s Mother’s Day Shrine, says she wants Grafton to be as nice a place for her 1-year-old to grow up as it was when she was a kid. “I have a faith about this place,” she says. “I want to see it be more than it is, as much as I know it can be.” We’ve heard it over and over again in Grafton and Matewan: The people who live in these towns love them despite their vacant storefronts and litter-strewn streets—they see the good in their communities and the people there. And they see the potential for change.
The first step was to get these people in rooms together and to get them talking. First came small informational sessions in March. There were some ground rules—no negativity, bring a solution when you bring a concern, be kind, not nice—but they were largely open forums. Those small meetings led to larger ones in April, and the entire communities were invited to participate: In Matewan the big town hall meeting brought in 75 people—that’s 15 percent of the total population. More than 130 people came out in Grafton.
At each town hall, staffers from the Community Development Hub led community members through a series of activities to guide brainstorming. They were asked to come up with specific activities that could help their towns, instead of just thinking of desired outcomes—a community garden is a more productive idea than suggesting we improve the town’s image.
The Hub is looking for three types of projects: First is the “low hanging fruit,” or ideas that are financially feasible, can be completed within a year, and don’t face major opposition. From there we move up to “intermediate projects” that are a bit bolder and more difficult to execute, and then “bold transformational projects” that require a lot of time and community engagement. Some ideas were similar between the two towns—beautification projects proved popular; everyone wants to live somewhere clean—but others were town-specific. Matewan is intent on taking full advantage of its ties to the Hatfield and McCoy feud and its coal mining history, while Grafton’s residents want to figure out how to capitalize on its status as the birthplace of Mother’s Day.
Before they left each meeting, community members used tokens representing volunteer hours—four per month per token—to indicate which projects they’d like to take on themselves. “Community development is not a spectator sport,” Spellman says. “You have to be involved.”
Here are some of Matewan’s top potential projects:
- A souvenir shop that stays open all day
- Restore historic jail
- Build an amphitheater
- Open historical underground coal mine
- “Shop local” Saturdays
- After-school activities
- Open a “comedy barn” to increase nightlife
- Enhanced green spaces with benches and a running track
- A women’s club
- Develop recycling collection
- More lodging options
- A trail system connecting Gilbert and Matewan
Here are some of Grafton’s top potential projects:
- Reopen train depot for tourism train rides
- Expand Memorial Day festivities
- Add parking, shops, restaurants, and a year-round farmers’ market
- Community garden
- Clean storefronts
- Assisting the elderly and handicapped with cleaning up property
- Walking trails with gardens that can be adopted by civic groups
- Veterans’ memorial park
- Restore the Willard Hotel
- Open the Manos Theater
What’s Next? A Happiness Index
From here, we have to winnow down those giant lists of projects into something more manageable. This is the point at which most talks get stalled: Everyone wants things to change and has ideas about how, but without some structure, it’s tough to funnel that energy into action.
That’s where Grafton resident Alex Reneman comes in. “Just sitting around talking about more ideas, I saw that as low value,” Reneman says. “There seemed like there were a lot of good ideas, but it’s like if you go hiking, you can hike all day but you might not get anywhere, you might hike in circles. We needed some kind of compass to tell us what direction we’re headed in.” So Reneman came up with something he’s calling the “Tygart Happiness Index.” He borrowed the concept from the nation of Bhutan, a tiny nation in Southeast Asia that’s trying to measure and grow the country’s “Gross National Happiness” instead of its wealth. The idea behind Reneman’s index is to put project ideas through a filter that helps gauge the projects’ impacts. It tries to objectify and formalize the process of choosing a community project to pursue—a process that is often rooted in subjectivity and threatens to spiral off into inaction. “I don’t know what we want to do here, I don’t know what that project looks like,” Reneman says. “But in my gut I’m thinking this thing is going to help us figure it out, help us do whatever it is we want to do.”
Reneman proposed the Happiness Index in an online video (find it at wvfocus.com), and the reaction in the community was overwhelmingly positive. At the next round of community meetings in May, the Hub team will use Reneman’s index to narrow down the list. “We’re not going to be able to solve our youth drain this year, we’re not going to be able to solve our economic woes this year,” Reneman says. But he believes that as the quality of life begins to improve in a place, more resources filter in to improve life there even more. The trick is knowing where to start. “It’s about regaining pride in these communities,” he says.
Each community will also continue some of the ongoing projects it’s initiated over the last few months, like community clean-up days. And the Hub is working to find an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer who will help maintain each community’s Turn This Town efforts over the course of a year. They’re looking for funding, too—but more on that later.
There’s a saying Hub staffers use often, a platitude that tidily sums up the ethos behind the work they do. It starts with a question: When’s the best time to plant a tree? And then there’s the common sense answer: forty years ago. But when’s the second best time to plant a tree? Today.
Written by Shay Maunz
Photographed by Shay Maunz and Elizabeth Roth