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Create West Virginia by creating Richwood

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Brooks McCabe Brooks McCabe

Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, is managing member and broker of West Virginia Commercial LLC. He has been involved in commercial and investment real estate for more than 30 years, and he also is general partner of McCabe Land Company LP. He has served in the West Virginia Senate since 1998.

Create West Virginia took a bold step by having its sixth annual conference not in a conference center but in rural Richwood, W.Va. The conference was a major success, if not measured by record-setting attendance, but by the energy and excitement generated by the attendees and the mayor and residents of Richwood. 

The question posed was how do we create our future and do so by retaining all of what is good and wholesome about our rural lifestyle?

Richwood is a small town off the beaten path that saw better days when coal and timber were the main drivers of the economy. The downtown is now a collection of vacant buildings suffering from deferred maintenance and lack of vibrant tenants and building owners. The town is doing everything right in that the mayor, City Council, Nicholas County Commission and community groups are all working together for a better future. Glenville State College has even joined into the act. Through sheer persistence, Richwood captured the location of the Create West Virginia conference in light of the fact that the nearest motels were in Summersville, a half-hour drive to the west.

The speakers and breakout sessions covered a variety of important and helpful topics, yet one thing remained unanswered: If Richwood would reinvent its previous economic vitality and diversity, from where would the jobs and economic investment come? 

Maybe a successful native son would appear with the dollars and jobs that are so desperately needed. Maybe there would be a miraculous recovery in the coal and timber industries. And maybe everyone who has left seeking a sustainable livelihood elsewhere would join in the chorus of community boosters and return to a lifestyle previously lived. The cold, hard reality is that Richwood is suffering the curse of much of rural America. Jobs are leaving, followed by many of the community's best and brightest young people. The infrastructure is aging and the consolidation of services is leaving the more isolated communities without.

 What was clear with the participants of the Create West Virginia Conference is that Richwood had excellent "bones" in its remaining architectural structures. It had a vibrancy and a will to succeed, to reinvent itself, to create its future. 

But the nagging question remained. From where would the new jobs and new residents come? This is a problem not just for Richwood, but for much of West Virginia. How do you create the next Fayetteville, Lewisburg, Shepherdstown or Thomas? Can parts of West Virginia be rural by design, or are the rural areas relegated to following a path of slow death unable to meet the demands of the world around us?

 Perhaps there is an answer that we, as a state, can address and use Richwood as our beta test.

What if Tamarack Foundation recruited the best artisans throughout the region and offered them the opportunity to pursue their craft with a living wage by guaranteeing the purchase of their product if it passed juried standards?

What if the state offered them health care under the new health care guidelines of the Affordable Care Act and assisted with helping the artisans establish a 401k retirement plan and a low-interest home mortgage loan through one of the West Virginia Housing Development Fund's programs?

What if the Housing Development Fund had a program that allowed an artisan to buy a building that would be both his or her residence and also work place, similar to the artisan lofts found in urban areas?

What if the community and technical colleges offered the artisans skill enhancements in various crafts so they could become multitalented to adjust to market changes in the consumer demands for arts and crafts? What if these programs were funded by workforce training funds through the local WorkForce Investment Board?

What if West Virginia's Small Business Development program offered training in entrepreneurship for cottage industries participating with Tamarack's juried artisan programs?

What if each artisan received a computer provided from the state's stock of surplus computers, and that Internet access and training in the use of computers and inventory management was funded by small grants from local and county coal severance taxes?

What if each artisan's child knew if he worked hard in school he would have access to the Promise Scholarship program which would fund the majority of their college education?

What if the West Virginia Division of Tourism had a marketing program specifically oriented to arts and crafts in small towns and could develop a focus on Richwood recreating itself? 

What if all the above were true or easily implemented? Would Richwood have a chance of recreating itself and its economy? Sometimes the impossible is just a matter of looking at the world differently. Perhaps it's worth a try. Maybe Richwood can show the state and its leaders how to turn the corner. Richwood could be the poster child of rural by design. This is not a road easily traveled, but perhaps it would be worth the effort. 

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