Economic development dynamo and first-term mayor raising up Smithers like a Phoenix from the ashes.
Ever wonder how a dying town finds a new lease on life? How boarded up buildings become bastions for new businesses? How small rural communities can educate youth while empowering them to improve their hometowns? If so, you’re going to love meeting these Possibilitarians. They embrace bold ideas with purposeful action and inspire and mobilize others to do the same. They focus on solutions instead of problems. They think positively and act with passion. They turn possibilities into realities.
“I’ve been in Smithers 53 years this June. I married into the city and into a legacy of public service. I seem to have—late in life—picked up that public service baton and run with it.
Desperation is a strong motivator and, when I took office, we simply had no place to go but up. For our area residents, coal left them behind starting in the 1980s, and more jobs were lost every year. The Charleston Town Center mall and changes to the Interstate 64 plans that rerouted it away from Route 60 had the combined impact of closing many local businesses. WVU Tech closed in Montgomery and Valley High School in Smithers. By 2018, when I was asked by the voters to serve as their mayor, they needed to have trust restored. They needed hope and plans to believe in. They needed to see positive progress.
My background may have been—I hope—a positive, contributing factor to our success thus far. In addition to administrative roles at WVU Tech, I was a tenured business professor and worked in statewide economic development initiatives for 20-plus years. Let’s face it—it takes investment, real dollars, to rebound from decades of economic downturns. This level of negative economic impact to Smithers and Montgomery, with a combined population of only approximately 2,500 residents, was so monumentally devastating that seeing any good outcome was beyond difficult.
Three early projects laid the most groundwork for the progress we’ve made. First, we created the Upper Kanawha Valley Strategic Initiative Council with Montgomery Mayor Greg Ingram. This organization allows us to jointly apply for grants and our resources to go much further. We consider ourselves to be one community made from two municipalities in this regard. Secondly, we removed several dilapidated structures along Route 60. These buildings were sending the wrong signal to all who traveled this highway. Their removal was a visual sign of hope and renewal, and I believe it was the tipping point for locals and outsiders to begin believing in us.
And finally, in Smithers we created the GATEWAY Center, which converted the former Valley Elementary School to new offices for the city. I opened discussions with organizations that needed better and bigger facilities. Today, the GATEWAY Center is fully leased and also houses our police office, the Starting Points Child Daycare and Family Resource Center, the New River Health Association Clinic, the Fayette Senior Program, the West Virginia State University Extension Service, the Midland Trail Association, and private businesses. It has also been designated as the polling place for Smithers and Boomer. The gym and stage have been newly refurbished, and it has become a true community center and the hub of numerous activities and events. And very importantly, the GATEWAY Center doesn’t cost residents a penny to operate due the payment of tenant leases.
People must come to know by your words and actions that you are not into trickery and that you will never ask them to work harder or take on more than you are willing to take on yourself. Our citizens needed leadership that would not trick or abandon them. I’m not going anywhere. My favorite word, and one I always use in capital letters, is TOGETHER. Working TOGETHER for the same goals makes all the difference between success and failure.
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