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Economic Collaboration Thrives in West Virginia

The Richmond Fed’s Community Conversations program visited Charleston, Smithers, Montgomery and several other towns in southern West Virginia recently to learn about collaborative efforts to strengthen the region’s economy.

“This visit confirmed the importance of leadership and collaboration,” said Andy Bauer, the Richmond Fed’s regional executive for West Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. “When you have leaders who collaborate with a shared vision, they are able to form a plan for a town’s future. Often, however, the challenge lies in finding the resources to execute those plans. It was interesting to go to small towns working to overcome the decline of the predominant industry in the area (coal mining) and reimagine themselves. We saw a good amount of collaboration and tangible progress.”

Bauer joined Richmond Fed President Tom Barkin during the two-day Community Conversations visit. These conversations are the vehicle through which Bank leaders focus on a particular region and meet with small groups of stakeholders to learn about the well-being of the communities and about looming issues these towns and cities face. The Richmond Fed also explores ways to collaborate that may  benefit these communities, and shares and gathers information about the economy.

The Aug. 30 – Sept. 1 visit to West Virginia began with a roundtable discussion about affordable housing led by Community Development Manager Tiffany Hollin-Wright. Participants noted that safe and affordable rural housing inventory shortages across the state are related to the amount of older housing in need of repair, lack of required water, sewage, utilities and other infrastructure, and challenges that the mountainous West Virginia topography presents to developers looking for flat, buildable lots. Their potential solutions thus far include increasing the interest and financial capacity of smaller nonprofit real estate developers and providing more flexible investment vehicles. 

Community leaders also informed the Richmond Fed team that private companies own a large percentage of the land in southern West Virginia, which has limited the ability of towns to expand.

Leaders in the area also shared how they’re strategically fostering economic development.

“One way is to identify people and places and provide them with resources to do what they need,” Bauer said. “Another way is to provide resources, sites and incentives to attract firms and people to the area.”

Community and business leaders are working together in innovative ways, including using West Virginia’s outdoor recreation opportunities as a community and economic development strategy. Southern West Virginia is home to the newest national park, the New River Gorge, and also to the Hatfield-McCoy Trails — which runs through seven counties and touches 17 towns. 

“The trail system is the largest on the East Coast and attracts visitors from across the country,” Bauer said. “More visit each year. New businesses have started to cater to this outdoor recreation tourism — lodging, restaurants and ATV stores, among others. We heard about investors from out of state buying up property and land because they see the future value.”

The Community Conversations team left the visit impressed with the efforts of these community stakeholders, and they look forward to sharing some of  the ideas and insights they gleaned with other towns and regions across the Fifth District, which is comprised of Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Washington, D.C., and part of West Virginia.

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Jim Strader (804) 697-8956 (804) 332-0207 (mobile)