GRAFTON, W. Va. – A room full of people gathered in the fellowship hall of a church in Grafton on Monday night with the common goal of turning the town around.
A two-hour workshop session was lead by staff members from the West Virginia Community Development Hub in which teams of residents worked toward completing an application for a grant to fund a project to help improve the town.
These projects varied in range, from economic development in ways such as improving the Farmer’s Market — which is held Wednesdays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. — to town beautification initiatives such as renovating the old Manos Theater in downtown Grafton.
This work began after the town was selected as one of two to participate in the “Turn This Town Around” project.
It was originally the idea of Nikki Bowman, founder of New South Media, Inc., to provide small towns in the state a chance at rejuvenation. The company’s magazine West Virginia Focus partnered with West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the West Virginia Community Development Hub, selected eight towns — four from the north and four from the south — and allowed people to vote for the two finalist. In the end, Grafton and Matewan were selected.
Bowman and others visited the two towns to drum up community support for the project, holding meetings to brainstorm initial improvement ideas and putting on events such as town cleanups.
Workshops began and the turnout was not what had been hoped. Good ideas were being presented, but not in the amount Hub staff members felt was ideal, considering the town’s population.
During the third workshop Monday night, however, there was an uptick in attendance.
“Coming in tonight, we had 28 projects and then tonight we identified 10 more,” Amanda Yager, Director of Community Strategy said. “So the Hub, and [WV] Focus and Public Broadcast, we have a big job ahead of us too because we have to go through those applications.”
Yager said the biggest challenge so far has been getting the community to come out to the meetings. However, as word has spread, the community has responded.
“I guess it’s because people are finding out about the money, the mini-grants,” she said. “But that’s definitely been the biggest challenge. We keep seeing the same faces, and that’s great, but this is a population of 5,000 people, so we want to see more than 50 people coming out, which we saw that tonight.”
The early workings of the “Turn This Town Around” project caught the attention of the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, which promotes human development in West Virginia and Southwestern Pennsylvania through charitable giving. The foundation provided a total of $150,000 to be split between the two towns.
The “mini-grants” consist of funding of up to $2,500 to be used for small projects such as the Farmer’s Market. These grants count for $50,000 of the total $75,000 for the town.
The remaining $25,000 is reserved for projects which can be described as broad, bold and have the capacity transform the image of the the town. The money can’t be used for brick and mortar operations, but it can pay for important services which would lead to the need for brick and mortar operations. Examples of what the fund could be used for include architecture services and financial consulting services, among other things.
As word spreads about the available grants a new challenge has presented itself to the Hub staff.
Typically, citizens come to them with project ideas and then the staff guides them to the resources which would help them complete the project. The “Turn This Town Around” project instead involves the staff going into the community directly, with more ideas coming at each meeting.
“We’re realizing this is going to take a little longer than we thought,” Kent Spellman, West Virginia Community Development Hub Executive Director said. “We’re looking at a structure that can add some additional training meetings for some of these teams that are coming in late.”
The fourth workshop is scheduled for August 4, with the teams’ grant applications due August 1, so they can be evaluated and returned for a revision opportunity.
Again, the Hub staff is looking to add more sessions to accommodate those who have joined the process late.
Ultimately, the goal is for community development to continue in the two towns after the project is officially over, with residents taking the initiate for future improvements.
Spellman said it all begins with a conversation.
“It’s going to change,” he said. “Some people will leave, new people will join, some projects will finish and new projects will show up. That’s healthy. That’s what growth is all about. It’s all about, we believe, that conversation and how we can keep it going.”