Charleston West Virginia Economic Development

Discussions on Economic and Community Development in West Virginia and the Charleston MSA as well as issues of the Charleston Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Neighborhoods can build prosperity
by Dan Foster
Appeared in The Charleston Gazette on November 25, 2007

National polls show that confidence in our democracy and our government is near an all-time low. Despite this oversimplified perception of the national mood, what is really intriguing is that, according to a recent article in Time magazine, volunteerism and civic participation since the 1970s are near all-time highs.

Amazingly, it appears that more and more Americans realize that doing good often brings them more satisfaction than doing well financially. We have seen this in response to major disasters like Katrina, but more so near to home in our own cities and towns.

In addition to many opportunities to help individuals or families in need, volunteers can also provide for the common welfare. Whether it is working with kids, service to our growing elderly population, helping at a church dinner, building houses with Habitat for Humanity, or serving on a nonprofit board, the possibilities for making a difference are unlimited. Yet one of the most fulfilling and valuable options, in my opinion, is participation in a community development organization.

An exciting, livable community is a thing of beauty and a boon to the economy. Cities, both large and small, that have been successful are those that have created vibrant, culturally fascinating neighborhoods and downtowns. Several large cities come to mind such as Pittsburgh, Chicago and Boston, but even smaller ones like Richmond, Asheville and Little Rock are also notable.

It’s not unrealistic to think that Charleston and other West Virginia locales could ultimately get the same recognition. In fact, Charleston was listed in the top five places for “empty nesters” in a recent survey, and Fayetteville was tapped last year as one of the top 10 “coolest small towns in America” in Budget Travel Magazine.

I am a West Virginian by choice, having arrived in Charleston almost 29 years ago. This state and city have long been known for friendliness of their people, but I appreciate even more the extraordinary quality of life we have here. We may not have exponential growth, but booming growth can be both a blessing and a curse.

As advocates for “Create West Virginia” have declared: “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 in which we can use 21st-century tools to share our strengths with the world, and to invite them to share with us.”

Although the Charleston Renaissance Corporation has existed for 25 years in one form or another and greatly affected development in our downtown after the opening of the Town Center in 1983, the rebirth of some of our residential neighborhoods began only in the last few years. Civic activists leading these projects, inspired by Mayor Danny Jones, hope to create a sense of tradition, an aura of cultural uniqueness, the feeling of self-sufficiency, as well as a belief that we’re all in this together. These strategies strive to augment the number of successful business owners, increase home ownership, improve public safety, enhance residential and commercial property values, and attract others to be a part of the community.

A great model is the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street Program, which combines the imperatives of local economic development and citizen involvement. Bill Woodrum, former president of the Charleston West Side Main Street, has noted that this organization emphasizes use of the social capital of volunteers in building these organizations and is thus quite different from traditional community development that relies mainly on professionals.

Simply, the bottom line is that, without volunteerism by local stakeholders, no amount of financial investment will ever be successful in the long term. When you consider that we have, within our city limits, the East End and West Side Main Street programs, the Kanawha City Community Association, and the Bridge Road Neighborhood Association, it’s obvious that this movement has come to life here. My impression is that it is also spreading to many other municipalities in the Kanawha Valley and around the state.

Whether it is refurbishing buildings or designing social and cultural infrastructure, a community can be rehabilitated and the economic vitality of a district and its businesses can be enhanced if there is a comprehensive effort. Even more important, the lives of all of its residents, particularly those who are most at risk, can be improved. If you saturate a challenged area with childcare, early life education, marriage and job counseling, health clinics, and after-school programs — and then add open green space, sidewalks, affordable housing development and accessible entertainment options — job creation is inevitable. When it works, hardly anyone would deny that nonprofit organizations and their leaders are the keys to this transformation.

Webster’s defines philanthropy as a desire to help mankind, and recently deceased West Virginians Lawson Hamilton and Lyle Clay come immediately to mind. Yet this desire is not just for those with significant wealth or maturity. Anyone, no matter their income or age, can always give time or human resources. Not only should all adults find some way to help others, but they must also leave a legacy of service.

When Gov. Manchin and the first lady mention five promises that we as a society must make to our children, remember that the fifth is to provide them an opportunity to give back. Fortunately, education leaders have mandated community service training to be part of the high school curriculum and many colleges now do the same. The Charleston Area Alliance has even gotten into the act by forming the popular young professionals group called “Generation Charleston.” As this concept spreads, it leads to more than mere economic development. It promotes a level of civic pride and self-confidence that is contagious.

Although I am a native of Tennessee, known for obscure reasons as “The Volunteer State,” I am convinced that citizens of Charleston and West Virginia are second to none in their willingness to lend a hand. With a little encouragement, everyone who cares can make this a place where folks from all walks of life want to grow roots. As I found out years ago, this city and state are indeed special, which many, like me, discover only after moving here.

We don’t need to be new Silicon Valleys. We can just be real valleys that have both an abundance of clean water and a multitude of concerned neighbors who are looking out for each other. If we continue to be Wild and Wonderful, businesses and people will follow.

Dr. Foster is a Charleston physician and state senator.


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