CreatePocahontas looks to Lewisburg for ideas
Rather than re-inventing the wheel, a local group is getting ideas from other communities that have improved their economies and quality of life.
CreatePocahontas hosted guest speaker Paul S. Detch on March 10 at the Snowshoe Career Center in Marlinton.
Detch, an attorney, businessman, former president of the Lewisburg Chamber of Commerce and founding president of the Lewisburg Foundation, was instrumental in the revitalization of downtown Lewisburg during the late 1970s.
At a time when huge chain stores endangered downtown businesses, Detch and other business people developed a plan and took action that resulted in an attractive and healthy downtown Lewisburg.
"From the get-go, it was done by business people for the purpose of promoting business," he said. "It was done basically for economic purposes."
Detch, who holds a graduate degree in economics, explained the characteristics of a healthy local economy.
The overall goal is very basic - "keep more money coming into the community than going out."
Detch explained, if a person in the community is paid a dollar and that dollar is spent at a locally-owned business, the dollar has turned over one time. In a healthy local economy, that dollar will turn over at least 2.3 times before leaving the community.
"The closer you get to five times that it is turned over, the healthier the economy is," he said.
The speaker said big chain stores, selling mostly foreign-made products, drain money out of a community.ﾠ
"What are drains on your community?" he asked. "Obviously, places like Walmart and places like that. They have some advantages and they end up being able to sell their products a little bit cheaper.
"The problem is - as soon as that money goes through the cash register, it's zapped to Zurich or Tokyo or some other place. You have to understand that, when you're thinking about building your economy, you want to get outside dollars in and you want to keep the dollars here while you got them. The longer you keep that dollar here while it's still turning over, you're increasing the quality of living for the people that are here and all of their incomes."
Detch said after K-Mart opened in Lewisburg, the downtown area had eight empty storefronts.
President of the Lewisburg Chamber of Commerce at the time, Detch began an initiative to reverse the downtown blight. As the planning process evolved, "two warring factions" developed.
"One group wanted to have Colonial downtown Lewisburg and they wanted to put up fake facades in Lewisburg and the other side wanted to knock down half of Lewisburg and create more parking," he said.
The group decided to bring in outside help to resolve the conflict.
"An architectural firm wanted $15,000 to come up and help us," he said. "That would be the equivalent of $35,000 to $50,000 today."
Within three weeks, Detch raised $5,000 from local businesses and local government and had traveled to Charleston and successfully solicited then Governor Jay Rockefeller for the remaining $10,000.
The architect advised the warring factions that Lewisburg should maintain its own character, rather than try to be something else.
"He suggested and believed,'you've got to be yourself,'" Detch said. "Lewisburg is not going to be Colonial Virginia."
The architect also condemned the idea to knock down buildings for parking.
"He said 'no - absolutely not,'" Detch related. "It's like a beautiful woman if you knock one of her teeth out. Attention is going to be focused on that space."
The architect prepared sketches of what Lewisburg could be without losing its essential character. In partnership with local government, the group of business people moved forward with the plan.
The group filled up empty storefronts with window displays to make the downtown area attractive for tourists.
"We made sure there was no plywood hanging up and we went down and put window displays in every window, Detch said. "We had children's artwork from the grade school, pictures from the historical society - anything we could think of - and then we would move them around so it wouldn't get too old."
"You want to keep that town alive," he said.
The group accepted the reality that downtown businesses could not compete with big retailers in mass-produced items.
"You can't undersell them for volume," he said. "What you have to provide in your downtown area is services and you have to have specialized things. That's why Lewisburg ended up having so many artsy stores and antique stores, because they aren't mass-produced."
The speaker said zoning was a necessity to preserve the character of the communityﾠ and tended to increase property values.
"Zoned property is worth two-and-a-half times that of comparable non-zoned property," he said. "If you zone, it doesn't automatically increase the value, but over a period of time, people want the protection of knowing that their neighbor's not going to have a pig farm put in."
Detch said community planning had to start with a vision.
"What you need to do is envision - 'what is the Marlinton I would like to live in?'" he said. "There's absolutely no reason that the Marlinton that you would like to live in can't become a reality."
Detch said any plan for Marlinton or Pocahontas County must take into account the area's unique advantages and disadvantages.
The speaker said natural beauty is one of our greatest advantages.
"It's beautiful," he said. "It's one of the most beautiful places in the State of West Virginia or in the Eastern United States. It's beautiful."
Detch said a better effort could be made to make tourists aware of the local attractions.
A major disadvantage is the county's location far from major transportation routes.
"You don't have the interstate and you don't have transportation," he said. "You don't have river, rail or any other major transportation. You could all sit back and say 'woe is me - we can't have any industry' -- but wait a second. Aren't you thinking too narrowly, particularly in today's society?"
Detch said many types of business can succeed without major transportation, such as marketing and selling products on the internet that can be delivered through the postal system. Other types of businesses, such as medical transcription, data processing and records management, require no transportation at all, just a good internet connection.
"Basically, you need to look at what you can do to attract industry here that is not dependent on transportation. Various things that can be mailed or shipped cheaper. Those are the things you need to look at and see what you can do," he said.
CreatePocahontas is open to anyone interested in improving the community. The group seeks to create a community that thrives on innovation, artistic vision, connectivity, diversity, entrepreneurship, technology and growth. For more information, contact Coby Brown at 304-572-5475.