Like many West Virginia economic development officials, Reggie Trefethen has been eagerly courting out-of-state business owners in the hope of attracting them to his corner of the state.
But instead of frequenting the board rooms and corner offices of retail companies and industrial manufacturers, the Barbour County business development director has been visiting the homes and stores of Amish families in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
For more than a year, the Barbour County Economic Development Authority has been pursuing a quirky — and possibly innovative — strategy that seeks to attract Amish families to Philippi and the surrounding region in order to boost tourism and retail opportunities.
With the county failing to pull in advanced manufacturers or other large employers in the past, workers with the Barbour development authority staff believe welcoming Amish families into their county could be an alternative solution to some of their economic woes.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Mike Cvechko, the president of the Barbour County Economic Development Authority’s Board of Directors. “Here in rural West Virginia, we have to think outside the box. People in our region travel up into Amish country for a bunch of things. We thought it would be a neat thing to bring them to us. It’s definitely a wonderful concept and one that we hope comes to fruition.”
While the Amish families that are in contact with the development authority have tentatively agreed to pick up and move from north-central Ohio to the Philippi area, Trefethen said, the community isn’t expected to make a final decision until sometime in February. But if community leaders agree to relocate, he said, there could be as many as 16 Amish businesses in Barbour County by the end of 2016, including furniture builders and cheese makers.
The plan may seem foreign to many West Virginians, but the merits of building tourism and commercial activity alongside Amish businesses aren’t unheard of. Places like Millersburg, Ohio and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where Amish communities have long histories, are already attractions for many people.
The ultimate goal, Trefethen said, is to make Philippi and Barbour County a destination.
With business locations available and some of Philippi’s downtown storefronts abandoned for years, the development officials see very little downside to marketing the location to Amish families.
Trefethen and others with the development authority have spent months studying the idea and analyzing market research.
With more than 966,000 people living within 100 miles of Philippi, Trefethen said, there are more than a few potential customers in the area.
Philippi is about a half-hour’s drive east of Clarksburg and two hours’ drive northeast of Charleston.
“We know we can draw people in here if we have the attractions,” Trefethen said, adding that people come from all over for Amish-made goods.
State officials say the development strategy isn’t something they had ever envisioned, but they praised the county development officials for being creative and using the resources they had at their disposal.
“I don’t know what the net result of this is going to be, but I like the thought process. I admire it,” said Keith Burdette, the director of the West Virginia Development Office. “How it works out, I wouldn’t venture to bet, but I think small rural communities have to be open to new ideas. They have to look at what their assets are and apply them as best they can.”
The undertaking hasn’t been any easy feat to accomplish though. Convincing people to uproot their families and businesses and move to an unfamiliar area in West Virginia hasn’t been an easy task.
Trefethen and other development staff have spent months traveling to Amish communities in Pennsylvania and Ohio to gauge whether any of the people would be interested in moving to Barbour County.
Like most economic development work, Trefethen put in the time to properly pitch his ideas. He created a PowerPoint presentation on the benefits of Barbour County, which he printed out and presented to the Amish community leaders.
“They were cordial, but they were guarded,” Trefethen said. “They were very conservative in that respect.”
In place of questions about utility costs, workforce training and highway connections, Trefethen was asked about the availability of farmland, tillable soil and the width of county roads, which would have to handle the new horse-and-buggy traffic.
For the most part, Trefethen said residents in Philippi and the surrounding county have been accepting of the idea, and he is working with the Barbour County Sheriff’s Office to work out possible issues with horse-drawn carriages on county roads.
Trefethen said the Amish families aren’t so different than the current residents of Barbour County. They are entrepreneurs and taxpayers, he said.
“We definitely think it can work,” he said. “We were just fortunate enough to find people willing to come here.”
While the development authority spent around $4,000 conducting market research and traveling to Ohio and Pennsylvania, Trefethen said the Amish families would be paying to move to West Virginia with their own money.
“These people are going to come in all by themselves,” he said. “The community takes care of itself.”
Cvechko, the board president, said the county’s economy won’t be fixed overnight, but he believes the unconventional development plan can work.
“There will be a trial period to see how everything goes,” he said. “If everything goes as expected, more families will hopefully move in.”
Reach Andrew Brown at email@example.com, 304-348-4814 or follow @Andy_Ed_Brown on Twitter.