By TAMMIE TOLER
PRINCETON — For decades, coal drove West Virginia, but one group believes talent and innovation are the fuel that could propel the state into a new economy.
As leaders of Create West Virginia visited Princeton last week, they said the growing artistic community, business possibilities and an increasing air of cooperation across city lines were the keys needed to open all kinds of new possibilities.
“This place has so much potential. It’s going to really break through,” Create West Virginia Director Jeff James said, amid the buzz of an enthusiastic crowd gathered at RiffRaff Arts Collective for a day-long summit on how to use talent, education, technology, diversity and quality of place to restore the region’s economy, quality of life and sense of community.
CWV’s goal is pretty simple. It was designed to draw a diverse community of West Virginians together to create a state that thrives on innovation, artistic vision, connectivity, entrepreneurship, and growth.
But, there’s a mission that’s reached the heart of the movement, according to www.createwv.com.
“Our vision is not to try and replicate what others have done. It’s to forge a dynamic, new West Virginia that is rooted in what has always made West Virginia great. It's the combination of the simple beauty of our surroundings and the soulful strength of our unique history with 21st century tools to share our strengths with the world, and to invite them to share with us. It’s about welcoming the new in the context of what's already great about West Virginia. Join the discussion. Share your ideas. Create West Virginia!” the site stated.
While many small cities and towns across the nation are struggling in a sluggish economy and skyrocketing fuel costs, there are also hundreds of communities that are working to find their niche in a world that always changes. Those places have defined their communities, listened to the residents’ and businesses’ needs and found unique ways to accommodate both.
Part of that process, CWV’s Jeff Miller said, is to inspire members of the community to take a vested interest in what happens in their hometown, because it holds their fates as well. Doing that requires listening to all the interested parties.
“I keep coming back to listening, because that’s the greatest tool you have,” Miller said. “From the ultra-conservatives to the raving liberals, listen to them all. Involve all of them in the process.”
Then, a community must define what it is, because going against its own nature is almost doomed to fail.
Communities must examine their artistic offerings and untapped resources, historic appeal, livable situations, where people hang out at and whether it has the potential to be a pretty place.
Miller said working with the existing nature of an area makes the shift to collaborative communities and a new economy fit right with the people and best utilizes its most important and abundant resource.
A community’s greatest asset can be the strengths it already possesses.
“If you have existing strengths, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Miller said.
In order for any community to grow, its economy, quality of life and sense of place must be self-sustainable. Though state and federal grants help roll out programs, Miller said it’s the talent, vision and hard work of the people and businesses behind the initiatives that keep them going.
“The grants dry up. The gifts cease coming. Politics happen,” he said.
Maintaining momentum in the face of these challenges requires that any new economy plan to create jobs, stimulate trade, attract investment, diversify the business climate, improve property value, provide opportunities for interaction, increase civic participation, engage youth and promote a sense of ownership among residents and contributors.
Merging elements of the local environment, a growing economy and a community that cares, Miller said small communities can reach for big goals in West Virginia.
Once the vision is shared and turns into reality, Miller also said marketing tools such as logos, position statements and stories will help spread the news about a special place.
And, Miller cautioned CWV conference participants to expect a work in progress.
“Just when you think you’ve got the community done, well, then it’s time to go back and look at it again,” he said.
Although the problems facing many West Virginia areas seem daunting, Miller stood certain, “Creativity can solve almost any problem.”
Participants on hand as the conference ended Thursday at RiffRaff left with a renewed commitment to truly create a new Princeton, a new Mercer County, a new state.
“I think a lot of people left with a stronger belief that creativity in the arts and community are not separate,” Maggie Mainland said. “Creativity in the arts creates community.”
James agreed, calling on local people to capitalize on the resources available, particularly collaborative, cooperative initiatives such as RiffRaff, which brings artists and the community together by giving them a place to create, communicate and participate in both the fine arts and the art of the everyday.
“They’re the creative spark every community needs,” he said, referring to Lori McKinney, Robert Blankenship and the other artists behind RiffRaff.
While he credited RiffRaff with starting the local movement, McKinney said she was inspired by the need to expand artistic options in her hometown.
“The arts add color and life, work to bring people together, and give people a sense of identity. When people have the opportunity to express themselves and experience others' creative expression, they are more joyful and more fulfilled,” she said.
Maggie Meehan, who has a studio inside RiffRaff, attended the conference and said she hoped the information presented served as a foundation for future growth at home.
“It’s sort of along the idea, ‘Blossom in the corner where you are,’” she said. “There’s a lot, really, going on in Mercer County and in Princeton, and I think that people are going to be looking for entertainment and vacationing much, much closer because of the cost of gasoline. We do have an awful lot to celebrate in our community.”
That optimism can go a long way toward meeting environmental, economic and community goals, she said.
“We have to look at the glass half full,” Meehan said.
One of the primary goals is getting past barriers, whether they are cultural, economic or geographic. Locally, the high school and business feud between Princeton and Bluefield has been well-documented and long-lamented, but folks in the creative class gathered last Thursday believed there have been great strides to move past the imaginary line separating Mercer County’s two cities.
“Those of us who believe in cooperation and good will do not even entertain the thought of separatism. The whole ‘high school jacket syndrome’ is an invented barrier between people that is really quite silly,” McKinney said. “... We need each other. We need to cooperate to thrive.”
While RiffRaff, along with other artistic endeavors at places such as The Bronze Look, the Princeton Railroad Museum, the upcoming Chuck Mathena Center and more, have been broadening creative horizons in Princeton, a growing group of artists have also set up shop in Bluefield at Gary Bowling’s House of Art. Conventional wisdom may lead people to believe the Princeton and Bluefield artists could be in competition, but McKinney said that is not true.
“We support the Bluefield arts scene by attending their events when our schedule allows, by wishing them very well, and by spreading the word about all the awesome things they are doing over in Bluefield,” she said. “We communicate with artists there too and have developed some great friendships with creative people who share our vision for the region. And, of course, our doors are always wide open for anyone who would like to participate or collaborate.”
Places like the art galleries, performance venues, museums and shops create unique destinations and individual offerings unavailable anywhere else, and Mainland said the more diverse businesses and artistic options available can only help craft an identity that means more than city boundaries. The movement requires investment from the people, as she was quick to point out.
“The places like Gary Bowlings House of Art and RiffRaff need the arts and artists. In order to survive, they have to offer something Walmart doesn’t offer. That includes art from the community and the community itself,” Mainland said. “They can offer that sense of community, and I think it’s important to support those businesses as much as possible.”
While all the participants present seemed eager to get to work after the CWV conference, Princeton Public Library’s Connie Shumate was among the most enthusiastic.
“I think the mindset of Princeton has changed. I think people are thinking forward rather than back,” she said. “This is exciting. It is what Princeton, what Mercer County, what West Virginia needs. Let’s do it.”
For more information on Create West Virginia, visit www.createwv.com.
For more information on RiffRaff, visit www.theriffraff.net, call 425-6425 or stop by 869 Mercer St. in Princeton.
To learn more about Gary Bowling’s House of Art, call 327-9300 or visit 701 Bland St. in Bluefield.
— Contact Tammie Toler at email@example.com.