What’s Next, West Virginia? workshop stops in Charleston

Dustin White, 31, lives in Charleston, but he still calls Boone County home.

White works with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. He said maybe one day he might want to return and raise a family there.

“But currently with the economics and things that are happening in that county, I really don’t see a future,” White said. “If we start having these realistic conversations, and start depending less on those who want to say they are our savior and start looking at our community power, Boone County has a chance to turn itself around if we work together.”

White was one of roughly 70 attendees at the What’s Next, West Virginia? workshop Wednesday who shared their concerns and visions for their local economies.

The event, hosted at the John XXIII Pastoral Center in Charleston, is one of five workshops around the state aimed at providing attendees with the tools they need to go back to their communities and host constructive conversations about building more diverse local economies.

The idea is to have the same conversation in their communities they discuss during the workshop and put those ideas into action.

“Even though there are some things we have in common in West Virginia, there are local economic challenges, and southern West Virginia is different from the eastern panhandle, the northern panhandle,” said Betty Knighton, director of West Virginia Center for Civic Life, which is helping facilitate the workshops. “People need to be able to localize the conversations to what’s happening in their own communities. They have different issues and different needs.”

The conversation started with where are we now? The crowd, consisting of mainly south central West Virginia residents, painted various pictures of their local economy. A Clay County woman said her local economy is suffering, and most people with jobs are working outside the county. A local pediatrician wondered what came first -- the economic downturn or drug use. A woman from Boone County talked about creating more tourism opportunities to generate economic revenue by embracing the county’s coal heritage.

What’s Next, West Virginia? works as a three-step process where community members assess where they believe the community is now, where its members want to go and how they will the community get there.

The workshop also encourages communities to look what its existing resources and strengthens are, what are some of the potential challenges that may arise and how can entire communities work through together for solutions

White would like to see a mindset change in Boone County. He wants to see more economic development with what the people already have.

He would like to see local residents employed to correct environmental degradation, community-owned energy projects, farm co-operatives that sustain a local foods economy and more locally-owned businesses.

“There comes a point where we can no longer stick to the status quo,” White said. “A lot of people don’t have a voice to speak up, but complacency is one of the worst things that can happen to a community, next to inaction.”

The workshop has already made stops in Martinsburg, Buckhannon and Beckley, and in two weeks, it stops in Wheeling.

Knighton hopes people of all ages and varying backgrounds participate in local community conversations and move ideas into action planning. The workshop will help attendees identify local community resources, not necessarily financial ones, Knighton said, to help move the community conversations and ideas into action plans.

Her dream is for each county in West Virginia to host its own community meeting, and for other more localized economic meetings to stem from that.

“This is a way to get more people in the mix,” Knighton said.

Laura Gilliam, executive director of United Way of the River Cities, believes conversations about local economic changes and the future are long overdue.

She hopes her organization can be a partner or leader in the Huntington community about generating more dialogue and more solutions.

She’s noticed a shift in her community that she hopes to build on.

“There’s been this recognition and empowerment going of this [younger] generation, saying, ‘We’ve got good ideas and it’s okay for us to employ those. It’s not going to be easy but if we’ve got a few folks who think this is a great idea -- let’s move forward with it,” Gilliam said.

Reach Caitlin Cook at caitlin.cook@wvgazett.com or 304-348-5113 or follow @caitlincookWV on Twitter.

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