Community gathering around a table discussing how to turn their town around

The people of Grafton and Matewan could get up to $150,000 to turn their towns around. Will they?

Originally published in West Virginia Focus magazine

We’re in Matewan, at the United Mine Workers of America headquarters downtown, which is serving as the Turn This Town Around meeting space for the evening. We’ve been there for two hours, watching PowerPoint presentations and talking about grant proposals; it’s now past 8:30 on a Tuesday night. When the meeting ends, it’s finally time to go home, but something remarkable happens: People don’t leave. A handful of them trickle out, sure, but there’s no mass exodus. “At least half the people stayed for half an hour talking through their projects,” says Stephanie Tyree, who heads up the project in Matewan for the West Virginia Community Development Hub. “When you end a meeting and people don’t want to leave, when they keep talking and they keep working until you basically tell them they have to go because you have to lock the doors—to me it seems like it went well.”

She’s talking about the June Turn This Town Around meeting in southern West Virginia, where the team at the Hub and representatives from West Virginia Public Broadcasting and this magazine got together with community members to talk about opportunities to improve the town. The day before there was a similar meeting in Grafton. The result was similar: The meeting ended but people stuck around, talking and making plans.

That’s a big deal because these meetings were a big deal. They marked the unveiling of the Turn This Town Around mini grants, a program funded by the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation to inject money into these struggling communities through our Turn This Town Around project. That means that by the end of next year these communities could each be $75,000 richer. It also means that when the grant program was unveiled on that day in the middle of June, the clock started ticking. We’re trying to have most of that money spent by the end of the year, and all of it by the middle of 2015. “We’re at a turning point in the project,” Tyree says. “We have done what we can do to get people excited about it, to get them to come together and to place some things out there to grease the wheels. Now it’s their job to make it happen.” The Hub’s executive director, Kent Spellman, cautioned that if community members fail to step up, formulate plans, write grants, and make these projects take off, this chance to make change happen in their towns could quickly pass them by. “I don’t want to have West Virginia Focus writing at the end of the year that Grafton and Matewan couldn’t get it together and left $20,000 or $30,000 on the table,” he says. We don’t want that either.

The Grants

Here’s how it’s going to work. The Benedum Foundation, the largest philanthropic organization that operates mainly in West Virginia, approved a grant to the Hub providing $50,000 in mini grants—that’s 20 individual grants—to each community, plus another $25,000 in what they’re calling “pre-development funding.” The Hub will divvy up this money and give it to people in Matewan and Grafton to use on projects that will make each town a better place to live.

Mary Hunt, a senior program officer with the Benedum Foundation, says the foundation likes to use mini grants like these to initiate productive conversations in local communities—the kind of conversations that lead to action that can be sustained for years to come. “The grant becomes a learning tool as well as a vehicle to do community work,” she says. “It takes the ideas for projects and turns them into real projects that people have to put their own blood, sweat, and tears into, and then see results. So it can also inspire people to say ‘If I can do that smaller project, I can manage this bigger one.’”

“Mini grant” is nonprofit speak for a sum of money that is relatively small in the world of grant funding, but still sizable in a small town like Grafton or Matewan. Here, the maximum mini grant is worth $2,500, though one can be for less money if the project doesn’t need that much. Projects can also be more ambitious. It’s OK—great, actually—if community members take the Benedum Foundation’s $2,500 and run with it, using the promise of a little funding to convince other organizations to ante up. “We have seen these mini grants sometimes leverage as much as 10 times as much as they really are, just by helping people get the projects moving and then reaching out in the community for more money,” Spellman says. “That would be a very desirable outcome.” Either way, the mini grant money has to go toward a project that will benefit the community as a whole and will result in visible, measurable improvement by the end of 2014.

Pre-development money is for bigger projects—the types of things that can’t be accomplished by the end of this year or maybe even in the next couple years. The $25,000 isn’t meant to fund the entire project but instead to get the wheels turning: It can be used for things like a feasibility study or site survey, to hire an attorney or an architect. The proposal process is roughly the same for each type of grant: To be eligible, groups of at least three people have to attend training sessions with the Hub team to shape their project, and proposals are due August 1.

When the grants were unveiled in mid-June, it left seven weeks for community members in each town to form groups around 20 ideas, flesh out 20 plans, and write up 20 proposals. ”This is a challenge and it is a stretch,” Spellman says to the crowd of community members in Grafton and again the next day in Matewan. “We understand that. But I think you’re up to it.”

The Ideas

Some ideas are big, sprawling, exciting messes. Others are hemmed in and thoroughly achievable. In this campaign, people want to resurface tracks and refurbish old train stations, to build bike trails and websites, paint murals and buildings, and form chambers of commerce and community centers. “I do believe this has awakened people’s interests in fixing up their town,” says Becky Bartlett, a high school teacher in Grafton who is working on a project to restore the old railroad station in Taylor County. “There were a lot of us who have had all these ideas and were like, ‘OK, we need to get started. We’re probably at the bottom of the bottom of where we’re going to go.’ But this was the push we needed.”

Dave Hatfield is behind one of Matewan’s biggest success stories to date—the Hatfield-McCoy Marathon, which started long before the Turn This Town Around campaign. The marathon has grown steadily over the last 15 years and in 2014 had 1,300 runners—more than twice the population of Matewan itself and a huge boost for the little town. Things like the marathon, the annual Hatfield & McCoy Reunion Festival, and the popular Hatfield-McCoy Trails have started to breathe a little life into Matewan in the last few years. “It’s giving people an attitude adjustment, changing people’s ideas about the town,” Hatfield says. “For years around here most people have had a we-don’t-deserve-it, woe-is-me, we’ll-never-have, can’t-do kind of attitude. And you have to change that, and a way to do that is to give somebody hope and to let them see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Hatfield is also the man behind one of those big, sprawling, exciting ideas. He wants to turn Matewan into a history center revolving around the town’s coal-mining heritage and the Matewan Massacre—he pictures it filled with historic reenactors, a regular and robust schedule of outdoor plays, a downtown filled with shops and hotels, and streets bustling with tourists. The idea has really caught on, and several people in Matewan are planning to apply for grants for small projects that feed into Hatfield’s vision. “Unity in anything is always better than going out there on a limb on your own and trying to make it with a small number of resources,” Hatfield says. “We can’t be in competition with someone across the street—the town’s too small for that. We have to use our resources to do what’s best for everybody.”

The same thing is happening in Grafton, though groups seem to be forming around a few smaller ideas instead of one big one. People want to improve and market the International Mother’s Day Shrine, the city’s popular Memorial Day celebration, and revitalize the downtown business community. And all of these ideas are gaining traction because the residents of Grafton share a common vision of what a prosperous Grafton looks like. “I remember going downtown when I was a kid and people were shoulder to shoulder on the sidewalks doing their shopping, and it was just a great experience,” says Tom Hart, who owns a gift shop downtown with his wife. “Then the railroad pulled out of Grafton and businesses started shutting down and you started to see dilapidation. I can remember a time not too many years ago where there wasn’t a single business open on Main Street. But it’s definitely coming back—now there are at least a few. And that’s made people’s attitudes about it improve.” Hart wants to use those first few businesses as leverage to attract more—he wants to see a chamber of commerce form, and he’s working on a plan to sponsor an event on the first Friday of every month downtown. His idea is to convince businesses to keep their doors open late for one night, provide music and entertainment, and hope the sidewalks fill up with people again. He wants Grafton to look something like it did when he was a kid, if only once a month.

Just like Grafton and Matewan have different opportunities for improvement, the challenges differ, too. The people in Matewan are enthusiastic about attracting tourists, for example, but they have a lodging problem—it’s a remote area, and there aren’t many hotels around. Grafton, on the other hand, sits just far enough off the interstate to be inconvenient—it’s a 20-minute drive from the center of town to Interstate 79—but close enough to Clarksburg, Bridgeport, Fairmont, and Morgantown that if residents get fed up with Grafton they drive to one of those places to shop, eat, socialize—or live.

So here’s the question: What does it take to make Grafton a place worth driving to? Or to make Matewan a place where people want to stay? Will people invest in these communities? Will they spend money there, volunteer there? Will they continue to live there, move there, stay there? And what can we do to help?

A Field of Dreams

Nobody thinks we can fix Grafton or Matewan—or West Virginia, for that matter—with a new bike trail or amphitheater. It’s jobs. We all know it’s jobs. But community development experts have a theory about that. The Hub published a toolkit for community development a few years ago where it’s explained well. “When communities think of development, they usually think of economic development—businesses and jobs,” it reads. “People work where they want to live, so building healthy, attractive, livable, and inviting communities is critical to economic growth. West Virginia has many advantages that are well known to those of us who live here: small communities with friendly, helpful neighbors that are safe places to raise a family. Many former state residents long to return. Community building can help identify ways to leverage these assets, as well as enhancing the community’s desirability in other important ways … If you build a community people want to live in, economic development will result.”

Kevin Stead, Grafton’s city manager, may sum it up even better. “I think it can create a seed that with some nurturing can grow,” he says. “As long as we can find a way to continue building pride and recruiting people who are excited about Grafton, it can grow. It’s about empowering people to create ideas and create projects, and then maybe some spin-off comes from that in the form of a better economy.”

Written by Shay Maunz

Photographed by Elizabeth Roth and Shay Maunz

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