RICHWOOD — There’s no butcher, there’s no baker (there’s not even a grocery store), there’s no candlestick maker.
But just about everybody else, it seems, is running for mayor of Richwood.
There’s the current mayor, two former mayors (one of whom left office after being arrested, while the other once got in a fist fight at city hall), a hardware store owner, gas station owner, a municipal pool worker, an EMT, a landlord and a newly arrived Californian.
In total, 10 men are vying to be mayor of this 2,000-person Nicholas County city, which, like so many other West Virginia communities, is struggling with a declining population, major industries that peaked decades ago and a deserted downtown.
Richwood’s population peaked in 1930. It’s got about 100 fewer people today than it did five years ago. It’s got half as many people as it had in 1970.
Once a thriving coal and timber town — Richwood used to be the “clothespin capital of the world,” with the world’s largest clothespin factory —only the Collins Co. saw mill remains.
In 1980, Nicholas County had about 2,200 people working in coal mines. By 2000 there were fewer than 400. Today there are fewer than 200.
The city is pocked with derelict buildings that need to be torn down, but remain standing, too costly and too legally complex to remove.
The abandoned houses breed other problems, namely the feral cats and dogs that breed in them — as many as 50 cats live in the abandoned house across the street from his own, one mayoral candidate estimated.
Richwood lost its lone grocery store last year, closed down by its state senator-owner whose profits increased with one fewer store to operate.
The city’s Main Street has a post office, a drug and alcohol counseling center, a dentist, a quixotic nonprofit dubbed Richwood Scientific and more than two-dozen empty storefronts.
The city’s leaky water system, like most throughout West Virginia, loses far more water than it should — 68 percent of the water that left the treatment plant last year disappeared before it reached its destination.
And yet Bob Henry Baber, Kevin Bennett, Bob Johnson, Gary King, Patrick Mays, John McClung, Drexel McMillion, Sean Rose, David Skaggs and Glenn Weiler all want the task of running this city, taking on the full-time job of trying to turn its fortunes around, for the princely sum of $24,500 a year.
“I should have had my head examined to go back to Richwood,” said Baber, a former mayor and several time Mountain Party candidate for statewide office. “But I suffer from a terminal disease called love of Richwood.”
There is a cautious optimism for the city’s future among the motley crew of mayoral candidates, albeit one tempered by the huge challenges it faces and by the more cynical citizenry.
“The decline in some of these local, rural economies didn’t happen overnight,” President Barack Obama said while in Charleston last year. “Its resurgence will not happen overnight, but it can happen.”
Rose, 25, works at the Richwood pool and is the youngest candidate. He was angry and disappointed at the state of the city when he filed to run, but after a couple months of research and learning about what’s going on, he’s changed his tune.
“This is an exciting time to be a citizen of Richwood and I am so proud to be here,” Rose, who, with a beard and long ponytail, does not look the part of politician, told about 60 people, many wearing #RichwoodProud T-shirts, at a recent mayoral forum. “I just enjoy being part of a team, part of a structure to improve the community.”
That was a common theme at last week’s forum — most of the candidates seemed less concerned with results of the June 14 election than with doing what they can, as mayor or as citizen, to improve Richwood’s lot.
“When was the last time you had this many people interested in running for mayor of this town?” asked Bennett, an EMT with the city fire department. “Never. And it’ll never happen again. If I’m elected, great; if not, I’ll still help.”
Candidates were asked what they had done in the last few years to help the community. Bennett’s response was a master class in accidental understatement, far removed from the boasts of modern politics.
“I can’t remember everything,” he said as he began to walk away from the podium.
What about the pool, someone from the audience yelled.
Yeah, I did do a lot of work there, Bennett responded.
And the fire department, the audience member yelled.
“I did build a ramp there,” Bennett said. “I guess I have done quite a bit, just didn’t realize it.”
The suggestions for dealing with the dozens, if not hundreds, of crumbling and condemned houses were myriad, if not always practical or spelled out.
“I will try to find and purchase an excavator,” said McClung, a former mayor who was arrested and removed from office in 2012 for taking money from a city account.
“I have a friend that’s a lawyer and he’s looking into it,” Bennett said.
“I have a plan that will be modeled after the city were I lived before,” Mays said.
“You just have to put a little elbow grease behind it,” said McMillion, a service station owner, who recommended going down to Flatwoods to pick up four or five day laborers to help.
Fine the delinquent property owners until they come around, said Weiler, who moved to Richwood from California a year ago.
A sobering assessment came from Johnson, the current mayor, who said they’d been working for years to pass ordinances making it easier to deal with decrepit buildings.
“Property rights in West Virginia are amazingly durable and the mechanisms to the city are limited,” Johnson said. “It is an agonizingly slow process.”
There are the faintest glimmers of hope on Main Street in Richwood, but its development is also, at best, agonizingly slow.
Chuck Toussieng was born and raised in Southern California and has worked in computer programming — software and hardware — for 30 years.
A year ago he packed up and moved to Richwood (his wife is from Nicholas County).
They paid about $20,000 for a storefront on Main Street.
Cleaned up and neatly painted in pale green, it stands in stark contrast to its dusty, empty neighbors.
A white board in the window urges walkers-by to come in and try Raspberry Pi. It’s not a bakery. There remain only three restaurants in Richwood.
Raspberry Pi is a $35 credit card-sized circuit board that, when plugged into a monitor, functions like a desktop computer and lets users learn coding and programming.
Toussieng’s shop is Richwood Scientific, a nonprofit where he teaches free programming classes every other week, has pop-up computing events and offers free work space and equipment, like soldering irons and a 3-D printer.
“Richwood, by some stroke of luck, happens to be sitting at the end of a 100-megabit fiber Internet connection,” Toussieng said. “If you want to start a business and have a ridiculously low cost to startup, this is the place.”
As for the mayor’s race, Toussieng is a bit of an agnostic.
“It doesn’t take being mayor in your town to affect a change,” he said. “Hopefully from those 10 people that we have running for mayor we’ll get one mayor and nine committed citizens.”
Richwood Scientific neighbors the town sculpture garden, which hosts concerts each Friday night in the summer.
On the other side of the garden, a coffee shop and bakery is slated to open soon, city officials said.
A third building is being renovated with a $40,000 grant from the Collins Co., for use by several yet-to-be determined businesses, said Mary Jane Williams, president of the Richwood Chamber of Commerce.
But other than that, there’s not much on Main Street.
The two-dozen or so empty storefronts don’t look abandoned, just empty and rarely used. Some have pictures and posters that describe what Richwood Main Street used to have — The Palace Restaurant, Star Shoe Repair, Charlie Gwinn’s Men’s Shop.
A consignment shop, mostly empty, isn’t totally closed, but isn’t really open either. “If you are needing to look at wedding dresses you can message me on Facebook,” a sign in the window says.
Last December about 45 local vendors set up shop in the empty storefronts, for a one-day pop-up shop to sell crafts before Christmas.
The event, a big success Williams said, will happen again this year.
“It feels like we are at a point where things are just starting to turn around in Richwood,” she said. “That’s probably one of the reasons why so many people are running for mayor. Everyone has an idea what they want to do.”
The modest successes are counterbalanced by the hanging suspicion that things could get worse.
West Virginia’s ongoing budget crisis will, if it hasn’t already, eventually be felt by its cities and towns.
Richwood’s only public daycare center, Starting Points Center, is in jeopardy of losing its building on June 30, which would force it to close down.
Nicholas County Empowerment, which runs the daycare center, has borrowed space from Cherry River Elementary for the last dozen years. But that arrangement could come to the end over a dispute about what services the organization provides, Nicholas County Superintendent Keith Butcher said.
An initial proposal from Nicholas County Empowerment had them no longer providing pre-K, but continuing on with day care and summer meals programs, Butcher said. He recommended that the county school board not renew their agreement.
A revised proposal, with pre-K back on the table, is now pending in front of the board, Butcher said.
“All school systems are facing financial cutbacks,” he said. “We’re also losing student population. That means we receive less funding.”
Marla Short, executive director of Nicholas County Empowerment, said they serve 450 families through their various programs.
“We’re the only child care on this end of the county, we have families who walk their children here and then walk back to work because they don’t have transportation,” Short said. “To be able to work, people have to have child care that’s affordable in the community.”
Nicholas County, which laid off 24 employees last year, has its own budget issues.
Two of those laid off employees were from the animal shelter, which means less help for Richwood in dealing with those feral pets.
“Their whopping staff of four has been cut down to two,” Johnson said.
Skaggs, who owns a hardware store in Richwood, recommended licensing every dog and cat in the city as a way to clear up animal waste issues.
“It really gets very annoying when you come to work and on your sidewalk is a deposit,” he said.
It also doesn’t help that the Richwood police department, which was dissolved two years ago because it wasn’t certified, now consists of only one officer.
The city contracts with nearby Summersville to hire its officers, part-time, to help fill in.
And, like just about everywhere else in West Virginia, Richwood is faced with a drug epidemic, both opioids and methamphetamine in Richwood’s case.
Chris Drennen, a server at Mumsey’s Iron Skillet, has been a foster parent to eight children over the past several years. But currently she’s a foster parent to none, worried that there’s nothing to keep them busy in Richwood.
“The only influences that they see are, pardon the expression, pillheads walking down the road,” Drennen said. “I want to go save the world, but I need some tools, I need some cooperation.”
Like many other towns in West Virginia, Richwood sees tourism as a way to replace jobs lost by the decline of extractive industries.
Richwood sits at the gateway to the Monongahela National Forest, an area rich in hiking, biking, fishing, kayaking and camping opportunities.
Similarly situated communities have found economic success built on tourism.
“The artisans have flocked to Fayetteville, Thomas, Elkins,” Amy Cottrill, a server at Carolyn’s Bar in Richwood, said. “We have to try to attract these type of people as well.”
A recent push to have the surrounding area declared the Birthplace of Rivers National Monument would help attract visitors, but has no guarantee of success.
“If every one of those shops on Main Street had a quaint business in it, it would be such a mecca for tourists to enjoy,” Williams said. “You’re always going to have people coming through the area and you have to have a reason for them to stop.”
It’s not a new idea, or one that’s easy to accomplish.
“We need to get some of these stores filled up for the fishermen passing through,” Baber, then mayor, said 10 years ago, when Richwood still had a grocery store, and began trying to turn itself around as a tourist destination. “You’ve got to give them a reason to stop.”
Reach David Gutman at
304-348-5119 or follow
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