Brick buildings with stores on the bottom level and parking spots lines up in front of them

This tiny Tucker County town continues to improve upon an already great thing.

Originally published in West Virginia Focus magazine

Nature, community, the arts—the 500-some population of Thomas has long been a place to escape to. People seem to be the best versions of themselves there—hiking, skiing, making art, or just having fun—and folks on the ground are working hard to make life there even better.

“The first time I came here was about eight years ago. A lot of young people were moving here, making life work, starting their own businesses or piecing together jobs. We wanted to be in the mountains,” says Emily Wilson-Hauger, AmeriCorps member for local nonprofit New Historic Thomas (NHT). Originally from Pennsylvania, she and her husband have lived in the Canaan Valley for three years.

Wilson-Hauger says the biggest project NHT has taken on centers around the banks of the North Fork of the Blackwater River. The Thomas Riverfront Park Development Plan—developed by Green Rivers, NHT, and the city—has been talked about for years, but it moved closer to reality in 2014 when NHT received a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The money will be used for environmental site assessments, cleanup plans, and community outreach. The environmental assessments will include sampling the site’s soils to test for contamination. “Since there was past railroading and mining activity, we want to make sure it’s safe to have a park there,” Wilson-Hauger says, adding that getting the EPA grant was a huge deal. “It was very competitive. We’re one of the smallest towns to get one, and it’s all volunteers managing the grant.”

The riverfront plan aims to connect several miles of rail-trail and 200 acres of park that are split by the river. A trail follows East Avenue on the main, storefront side of Thomas for about a half-mile, and on the other side of the river are a few more miles of trail. “You can’t get to it from this side of the river without going over the highway bridge,” says Thomas Mayor Matt Quattro, who hopes funding for a pedestrian bridge comes in by spring 2015. NHT was working with the city to apply for a Division of Highways recreational trails grant in December 2014 to help cover a pedestrian bridge. “Getting these trails connected so someone can come into Thomas, go shopping, go eat, but then hop on their bikes is so important,” Wilson-Hauger says.

Quattro was born and raised in Tucker County before moving away, but has been back in Thomas for some 20 years. He’s watched as the city went from booming coal town to quiet ghost town to a place that buzzes with tourists. He and others, including Reid Gilbert, saw that the town was depressed in the ’90s and decided to do something about it. Quattro says Reid was an instigator behind bringing the arts to Thomas, as he studied under Marcel Marceau as a mime and came to Thomas for its 1902 opera house—of which restoration efforts are still under way today by nonprofit group Alpine Heritage Preservation. Quattro and Gilbert were both part of the original NHT group, founded in 1996 before slowing to a halt around 2005. The riverfront project was just one of the efforts originally conceived by that early NHT group, though the group could never get enough funding to bring it to fruition. “The riverfront plan has been there for a long time,” Quattro says. “It’s really what the town needs.”

While the nonprofit essentially went dark for many years, a good-sized group started holding meetings again just a few years ago and a new board was elected in 2012, Wilson-Hauger says. “The West Virginia Community Development Hub really helped them get momentum going again.” Current NHT membership is 20 or 25, though a lot more people give their time, she says, from beautification efforts to making trail signs.

Working with the mayor and city council, NHT’s mission is to preserve the city’s built and natural environment, businesses, and people so Thomas continues to be a thriving environment for residents, visitors, and the business community. “Thomas has had a lot of its downtown buildings restored in the last five or so years,” Wilson-Hauger says. “NHT would like to keep that momentum going, to work with property owners and Woodlands Development Group to help encourage more of those buildings on Spruce Street to be fixed up as well.” In 2012 NHT also completed a Vacant and Dilapidated Buildings Survey to help prioritize redevelopment efforts.

“If you go to most small towns this size you wouldn’t see the change and community development and quality of life and economic development that you see here,” Wilson-Hauger says. “A lot of community development workers don’t get to see what their work is doing because it might be years down the road before they see any change, but we’re seeing it. It’s incremental, but it’s here.”

Quattro is hopeful about Thomas’ future. “We have a different group of people now in the last five years,” he says. “Most of them came here to work in the ski industry or summer tourist industry. They liked it here, they stayed here, they developed businesses, and they put roots down. The revitalization is because of the younger people. I tell them, ‘It’s all yours. You need to take it and run with it.’ And they have.”

Written by Laura Wilcox Rote
Photographed by Elizabeth Roth