He’s not a native, but Chuck Toussieng has a burning desire to make Richwood a better place.
For 10 days every summer on a dry lake bed in the Nevada desert, tens of thousands of people come together to co-create Black Rock City: a temporary celebration of art and community. Participants at the annual Burning Man Festival erect grand-scale sculptures, build movie theaters and yoga studios, run pop-up restaurants and throw spontaneous dance parties. For festival alums, the radical participation and creativity of “The Burn” becomes a new mindset—an experienced knowledge that, when people have a shared vision and give it their all, it will become reality.
Take Chuck Toussieng. He’s gone to Burning Man from his hometown of Malibu, California, for the past decade. So when his wife-to-be, Summersville native Katie Fleer, brought him home to West Virginia in 2012 to meet the family, he saw raw potential. “We’re driving around, and I’m like, Wait a minute! Why doesn’t anybody talk about the mountains and the rivers and the waterfalls?” He jokes now that it seemed like a conspiracy among West Virginians to keep it all to ourselves.
Toussieng fell in love with West Virginia’s beauty on that first trip. He especially liked the gateway nature of Richwood. “If you drive (U.S. Route) 19, you drive by Summersville, you don’t go through it. You drive by Fayetteville, you don’t go through it. But when you’re driving to Snowshoe or the Mon Forest or the Cherry River, you have to go through Richwood.” He learned on a later trip that Richwood has access to fast, 100-megabit internet. “And when I found out that in Richwood you could buy a house with five acres and a stream for less than I paid for my truck, I was interested.”
The couple got married in 2012 and moved to Richwood in 2015. Toussieng became a key member of the community early on when he volunteered to manage the town swimming pool—how hard could it be? That underestimation turned out to be “a hilarious mistake.” In June 2016, the Cherry River flooded the town, ruined the pool’s pumps, and left four feet of mud behind. Seeing the pool’s value as a stress reliever during the clean-up, he raised money, bought new pumps, cleaned the mud out, and had the pool open again in just three weeks. Richwood’s flood response showed him not a dying former coal and lumber town, but a place of caring and resilience. “They’re like a family here,” he says. “They’ll gossip and complain about each other but, when the flood came, these guys stood back to back and made sure everybody was taken care of.”
For the past year and a half, Toussieng has taught classes for free in a building he and his wife bought in downtown Richwood—most recently, a 12-week boot camp on how to write code. “I thought, I’ll do it two nights a week, you’ll have to do a lot—a lot—of homework, but if you commit yourself, I will teach you not only how to work as a programmer/developer, but how to work as an independent, remote consultant.” Sixty people signed up on Facebook. Forty-five showed up to the first class, in January, and 30 to the second class. He graduated 14 dedicated students in April, and he was happy with that. Near-term, he plans to offer internships, hire some of his graduates for entry-level work, and start passing projects directly along to graduates as their abilities improve. He also hopes graduates will help teach future students. It’s his secret plan, he says, for building up amenities like a bookstore and a movie theater in town. “If I can get 20 people in Richwood making technology-level salaries, imagine all of the jobs it would create around that.”
Richwood—and towns all across West Virginia—offer great opportunity, Toussieng says. “Say I wanted to open a microbrewery. If I wanted to do that in Los Angeles, I would have to spend a couple million dollars buying an old building and renovating it,” he says. “Or, it’d be really awesome to buy my own house on property where I could build a treehouse without going through a seven-year permitting process. It would be awesome if I could afford to only have to work four days a week, open my front door, hop on my bike, ride down to the river, and fish or paddle world-class whitewater. You can do that here. Opportunity is what you make it.”
It’s a matter of perspective, in his mind. “You have to get the kind of people who, when they drive into a Richwood or a Clendenin, they see past the falling-down houses. Falling-down houses can be picked up and rebuilt—they’re opportunities to create something new.” Some people might complain about having to drive two hours to the nearest airport, he says. “How about, you can drive six hours and be at the beach, in New York, in Lexington, in Columbus, in all of these places that are so close around here—and at the same time pay $20,000 for your house? It’s not for everybody, but I think it could be for a lot of people.”
When old friends ask Toussieng to describe Richwood, he tells them it’s a Burning Man camp, only better. “The whole idea at Burning Man is, it’s a gifting economy. The goal isn’t to make a ton of money, it’s to make an amazing place that’s fun to come and live. The bummer about it is, you have to bring all your stuff out there—if you forget a bolt, you’re driving two hours to Reno to buy a bolt. Here, we’ve got water, power, infrastructure.
“And Burning Man only lasts for a week. In Richwood, you can do anything you want to do, create whoever you want to be. And it could really last.”