On this West Virginia Morning, Shepherdstown and Romney both lay claim to being the oldest town in West Virginia – but there’s some confusion as to which town is actually correct. Shepherd Snyder spoke to Appalachian historian and Shepherd University professor Benjamin Bankhurst about why the answer is more complicated than it appears.
Gayle Manchin Tours Old Huntington Factory Turned Community Hub
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Gayle Manchin, Appalachian Regional Commission Federal Co-chair, toured a defunct factory last Wednesday that’s been turned into a community space in Huntington.
The West Edge factory was once a clothing factory that shut down in 2002. It was purchased by the nonprofit Coalfield Development in 2014 and has since become a space for community events, artist studios, and a work space for developing enterprises.
In partnership with Solar Holler, The West Edge is also home to the largest solar installation for a non-profit in West Virginia.
While on a tour of the building, Gayle Manchin noted the importance of the old building to the local community. She said, “it was their grandmother’s that worked in this building. I think it helps build pride in families, that the generations later see the rebirth of something else in a place that they were familiar with.”
The West Edge is home to Coalfield Development’s revitalization enterprise groups. These enterprise groups include Mountain Mindful, Refresh Appalachia, and Revitalize Appalachia.
Mountain Mindful produces self care products and uses upcycled materials to build furnishings, Refresh Appalachia is a distributor of fresh food and produce, and Revitalize Appalachia works to construct homes for unemployed and underemployed people in Wayne, Mingo, and Lincoln counties. Each enterprise offers job training.
Marilyn Wrenn, Coalfield’s Chief Development Officer, said their training program offers mentorship and certification opportunities to sometimes struggling students. She added that the training can be applied as credit hours toward an Associates degree at Bridge Valley, Mountwest, and Southern West Virginia community colleges.
Wrenn noted that, “about a third are in recovery for substance use disorder. Another third, and there’s a lot of overlap but not completely, are justice [system] involved.” She added that, “everyone that we’ve hired has been unemployed.”
“It’s inspired me to hopefully start my own business someday,” said Amanda Whitlock, a member of the woodshop crew. She said she came to the training program after graduating from recovery treatment. Whitlock is a full time student and a mother of a 2-year-old son.
Whitlock says she’s grateful for the opportunity to build a career for herself. Whitlock told Manchin that she feels, “like I’m just really off on the right foot as far as going to school and working full time. And this place has just really fostered a lot of growth for me.”
Jacob Hannah, Coalfield Development’s Director of Conversation, presented to Manchin ways that Coalfield Development is utilizing Appalachian Regional Commission grants to expand their recycling and upcycling programs.
By collaborating with local organizations such as Marshall University and the Wayne County Economic Development Authority, recycled and upcycled materials are used to fill niche needs. For example, sawdust and scrap fabrics can be reused as farming materials.
“The idea is like, how can we sort of look at those low hanging fruits and tie them all together, and so it’s sort of been growing and growing throughout these different counties, to where we identify partners and communities and organizations that could be a part of this conversation,” said Hannah.
To expand on the recycling and upcycling programs, Coalfield purchased the Black Diamond property next door. Just like the West Edge factory, the Black Diamond building has had a long industrial history and the area and has long sat vacant.
Brandon Dennison, Coalfield Development’s CEO, said that instead of thinking of economic development as attracting outside companies to locate in the region, the non-profit is taking a different approach. He said, “I think the more we work with who we have here already, and what we have here already, and start where we are, even if it’s an empty building, it’s got great bones, it’s got soul and character, and I think the more we do that from the bottom up, that will naturally organically attract.”
“The thing that I want each and every one of you to realize is that ARC does not go around handing out money. That’s not what we do. It’s not who we are,” said Manchin at the end of the tour. “What we are, is that federal agency that is there waiting for the local communities to realize their challenges, come up with solutions, working together with the community, with your elected officials, with your educational leaders.”
Manchin added, “we can help communities start to thrive. But the ultimate goal is we want our communities to be able to compete. I look to people like Brandon and others across the state that truly is going to bring to the surface ideas and proposals that can transform this region.”
Coalfield Development is one of the 60 finalists in the first stage of the Build Back Better Regional Challenge from the United States Economic Development Administration. The final stage of the Build Back Better Regional Challenge 25 million to 100 million dollars in funding.
The program’s aim is to create a sustainable economic future for West Virginia’s coal-impacted north central region. Anyone living in north central West Virginia in counties defined as “distressed” or “at-risk” can receive free training and certification in cybersecurity-related fields.
Speakers from the city of Huntington, the Cabell County Commission and the Mason County Development Authority briefed members of the Joint Standing Committee on Finance Monday on development they are already seeing for the region from the NUCOR plant.