By Samantha Cart
From the tip of each of its two panhandles to the southernmost coalfield, West Virginia’s communities run the gamut of size, topography and industry. The struggles and successes of some of the state’s smaller communities are sometimes overlooked in favor of its population, health care, athletic and political hubs; however, these small communities pack a powerful punch when it comes to finding creative solutions to reversing population decline, diversifying economies and repurposing existing infrastructure.
The communities of Calhoun County, Capon Bridge, Montgomery and Weirton are proving once again that the Mountain State’s most powerful asset is its people, and when these people work together, the impact is significant. Most importantly, the projects and initiatives these groups are undertaking can be replicated in other places to strengthen small communities across West Virginia.
In early 2022, Crystal Mersh, president of Quality Executive Partners, moved home to West Virginia. During her transition, she started reconnecting with friends from high school.
“The situation in Calhoun County was vastly different than when I left 40 years ago, and things had not gone in a good direction,” she says.
Mersh and her peers started looking for ways to help turn the tides. During that time, the old Calhoun County High School building, which had sat vacant for 25 years, came up for sale, and they immediately began brainstorming ways revitalizing this property might help the community. At first, they were trying to think of a strategy for making the property commercially viable; however, they decided that the goal should instead be to create a nonprofit.
“Once we landed on that, the ideas came very rapidly,” she says.
Thus, The 1982 Foundation was born, and the nonprofit entity is now in the midst of rebuilding and renovating the 100-year-old former high school into a mixed-use facility to provide recreation and community support opportunities. The completed community center will include meeting and office space and AirBnB rooms as well as a childcare center, commercial kitchen, farmers market, café, fitness center and 10,000-square-foot gymnasium.
“The bigger project then is revitalizing the county,” says Mersh. “The community has really grasped ahold of the project and is generating new ideas and running with them.”
Phase one of the project is scheduled to be completed in mid-2023, with the remainder of the project to be completed in 2024. The project includes adding 18,000 square feet of new facilities and renovating 38,000 square feet of existing infrastructure.
The 1982 Foundation is also spearheading other initiatives in conjunction with the renovation, including Take Me Home, a program geared toward bringing people like Mersh back to Calhoun County to jumpstart communities with their combined economic power. The foundation has outlined a four-area focus to continue its revitalizing mission: business development, recreation, farm-to-table food production and drug recovery efforts.
“This is not a matter where we are looking to or waiting for state or local government to give us direction or provide funding,” says Mersh. “We are bootstrapping—taking the bull by the horns to make things happen. By focusing the community on these four areas, we hope to develop a business incubator and accelerator; bring recreation to the county be leveraging the Little Kanawha River, our beautiful terrain and our country roads; create a farm-to-table market strategy; and aid in substance use recovery. I am proud of the folks of Calhoun County who have stepped up and are doing all they can to improve their circumstances. There has been a very impressive transformation that has happened here in a very short period of time.”
Located on the banks of the Cacapon River in eastern Hampshire County, the community of Capon Bridge is quintessentially West Virginian with its historic structures, intergenerational family residents and welcoming nature.
“Capon Bridge is a tiny town with a huge heart, and I am honored to live here,” says Timothy Reese, managing member of Green Bridge Properties.
A Southern West Virginia native who spent most of his career in commercial real estate and construction in Arlington, VA, Reese returned home to the Mountain State in 2008 and was welcomed seamlessly into the Capon Bridge community.
Reese believes the growth the small town is experiencing centers around one thing: laying the groundwork for the next generation to thrive. Historically an agricultural and trading community, Capon Bridge is now building its economy around the arts, tourism and outdoor recreation industries.
“We are trying to accent things that are natural to the area, like fishing, hunting, biking and boating, and, as a result, the town is seeing an uptick in things like cycling and road racing,” he says.
Reese has completed six revitalization projects in Capon Bridge, including a recently restored historic home called Basswood, which was built in 1850.
“Basswood House is now a five-suite Airbnb property in the center of town,” he says. “It is the first lodging opportunity in Capon Bridge in 50 years.”
Reese also helped launch Bent River Trading Company, which he describes as Capon Bridge’s Tamarack, a brand-new venture that sells West Virginia-made products.
“I see my role as scouting out new opportunities and possibilities that support young people and families,” he says. “I look for opportunities to redevelop old buildings and put young people in charge of them or opportunities that make the area attractive to young people and families because that is the future of our area. I want to help set the stage for young people to realize their dreams here in Capon Bridge.”
The River House, one of Reese’s redevelopment projects, is a nonprofit community arts and music venue that offers live performances, art classes and open workspaces as well as local pastries and an espresso bar.
He is also involved in a new initiative called the Capon Bridge Arts Collaborative, which is working to link existing arts organizations—including The River House, The Cat and The Fiddle, Bent River Trading Company and local schools and libraries—so they are not competing but, instead, mutually supporting each other.
“Linking these together will help make little Capon Bridge an arts destination similar to Shepherdstown, Berkeley Springs and Lewisburg,” says Reese. Reese is confident the success seen in Capon Bridge is replicable.
“With the right energy, focus and investments, this same model could be used in other towns,” he says. “Small town revitalization is the key to bringing West Virginia back. I am just happy to be a part of it here, in one of those towns.”
With Charleston dominating headlines in politics and health care, the at times overlooked Upper Kanawha Valley has an identity all its own. This includes the city of Montgomery, a community that has been deeply impacted by the decline of the coal industry. Today, Montgomery is turning its attention toward reclaiming its place in the education landscape as well as pursuing outdoor recreation opportunities.
Since the loss of Valley Fayette High School and the WVU Tech campus in 2017, Mayor Greg Ingram has been working tirelessly to regain education options in his community. The infrastructure left behind by WVU Tech is being repurposed one building at a time. The old Vining Library is now known as the Montgomery Media Center, which is home to a new television station that will soon air a program called “Montgomery Today.”
In 2020, Montgomery became home to Mountaineer Challenge Academy’s second campus.
This, coupled with BridgeValley Community and Technical College’s home in Montgomery, checked a few of Ingram’s boxes, but he wanted more.
In August, the long-awaited Montgomery Preparatory Academy will open its doors for the first time. A private school that falls under the My Life My Power World Inc. School System, Montgomery Prep will utilize various platforms and methods for student learning with a particular focus on entrepreneurship, vocation and career services and life skills programming.
“We utilize the Apex Learning Management System, which allows us the flexibility to excel each student at their own pace to ensure they are on target for their learning goals and getting the support they need via teachers and tutors,” says Jennifer Kramer, M.Ed., superintendent of academics and accreditation for My Life My Power International Preparatory Academies.
The preparatory academy system was approached by Ranger Scientific CEO Daniel Pearlson and Director of Business Development Mark Ryan in an effort to help impact the youth of Montgomery.
“The Ranger Scientific family is blessed to support a globally accredited school system coming to Montgomery,” says Ryan. “We believe Montgomery Preparatory Academy will transform children’s lives and create brighter paths for their future.”
Additionally, Ingram is negotiating to bring an elementary charter school to Montgomery to round out the educational opportunities.
Montgomery is also leaning into its natural beauty and resources to create a tourist destination. It is now part of the Hatfield McCoy Trail System, and Ingram is working with the Kanawha County Commission on a grant for a welcome center. A minor boundary adjustment helped make the local marina and the river up to the Montgomery Bridge official parts of the city. The City of Montgomery also negotiated with the Boone East Coal Company to receive all land in Kanawha County along Route 60 to create a walking trail and recently completed a new fishing pier on the river.
The business community has also seen an uptick in activity, with the relocation of Fruits of Labor to Montgomery, the groundbreaking for Ranger Scientific and the opening of several new restaurants.
“My motto in Montgomery now is, ‘If we don’t have it, you don’t need it,’” says Ingram. “We have a lot of movement, we have a lot of excitement, but above all, we have hope.”
Located in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle, Weirton lies in both Brooke and Hancock counties along the Ohio River. It is the state’s second-largest city in area and enjoys the distinction of being the only city in the U.S. that borders two states on opposite sides of town.
“This means visitors can be at the Pittsburgh International Airport in 20 minutes or jet skiing on the Ohio River in 10 minutes,” says City Manager Michael Adams, Esq.
According to Adams, Weirton has an industrial reputation and is lesser known for its creeks, streams, golf courses, hunting camps and gaming resort. However, these industrial sites are currently being converted and renewed, and part of that renewal includes a robust trail system and world-class river access. These projects include the asphalt paving of Weirton’s Panhandle Rail Trail; a $122,000 upgrade to the Edwin J. Bowman Baseball Field; and upgrades to the city’s largest park, Starvaggi Memorial Park.
While embracing its natural resources, Weirton is also seeing economic growth in other areas. In the last three years, Three Spring Crossings, a three-acre area that sat vacant for 15 years, has been developed into 48 different businesses. In the three-mile span that makes up Three Springs Drive, residents and visitors alike have access to a variety of restaurants, grocery stores and gas stations.
On the opposite side of Three Springs Drive, the former Weirton Steel Research and Development Center, which was idle for 25 years, is being redeveloped into the Three Springs Industrial Park, a new industrial and warehouse center. This complements the Half Moon Industrial Park, which also sits along the Ohio River.
In Weirton’s downtown, the former Weirton Steel Corporation location is now known as Weirton Frontier Crossings.
Paul Lauttamus, president of A.V. Lauttamus Communications, Inc., believes Weirton is a perfect example of the adage, “If you build it, they will come.” Lauttamus Communications recently expanded into a new corporate office space—including an innovation center, event center, corporate gym, wellness center and data center—and created 25 new skilled worker jobs.
A new public/private partnership in Weirton is creating a combination of retail residential development branching from Three Springs Drive, known as Park Drive. For this project, the city is installing road and utility infrastructure and community amenities to support at least two combination retail/residential buildings.
“The Park Drive development creates jobs and commercial development while addressing residential needs,” says Adams. “This property had been dormant for a number of years; however, and with the help from the economic development association, this public/private partnership has awakened the potential of this highly accessible and highly visible area, breaking ground in April 2022.”
Weirton is celebrating its 75th anniversary as a city this year as it continues to transition from an industrial steel town to a diverse hub of industry and recreation.
“Weirton is flourishing—not with just industrial development but commercial and retail development,” says Adams. “When you look at all that has developed over the past five years, it is evident that the city of Weirton no longer has to depend on steel to thrive.”