Create a state – or at least recreate a town

On Saturday I was speaking at the sixth annual Create West Virginia conference. This one was held in Richwood, West Virginia. It's a town with, on the face of it, not a lot going for it. It used to be a lumber and coal mining center but as the industries shut down so the people left.

Its Main Street consists now of 29 mostly boarded-up storefronts of early 1900 vintage and its residents now drive 25 miles west to Summersville where the big box stores are located on a four-lane corridor that connects two Interstate highways. The conference organizer, Rebecca Kimmons, told me that 'Richwood appears to be a ghost town, but its 2,000 residents, led by a creative, spunky mayor, believes that it can recreate itself.' (See my blog piece of June 17 on how I got the invitation to this)

We arrived there after dark on Friday and looked for the 'Red Gym' where we thought things would be happening. They were. Dinner was being prepared for the participants by Tim Urbanic of Cafe Cimino and Dale Hawkins who'd teamed up to cater the three days and there was a drinks reception with a local brewery, Bridge Brew Works and winery (Kirkwood) at the 'pop-up' Gray Seas Cafe on Main Street.

What I found delightful about the conference was the whole 'pop-up' concept taken to extreme. The conference center popped up in buildings used by the High School. (Rebecca had deliberately looked for a host town that had no conference facilities). 25 shops popped up on Main Street – all artisan wares. The old 'Richwood Banking and Trust' building popped up as a coffee house featuring evening jazz. Cross town broadband connectivity popped up. It was a kind of instant 3-day recreation of the town, giving a real insight into what it could be the future if the community rallied to make it so.

Getting the community engaged and behind a proposed change is the stuff of 'change management' that I am immersed in every day of my working life but I've never tackled it on a town – although there is an argument to suggest that organizations are communities and that change principles applicable to organizations are applicable to other forms of community.

Listening to the various speakers and talking to participants reminded me of John Kotter's 8 principles for successful change . The first step in Richwood would be to establish a sense of urgency (Kotter's first principle). Maybe that's the rub here. What is the sense of urgency that the community could muster behind? There seems to be a certain sense of helplessness and apathy evident in people native to these abandoned communities – are those that remain those that didn't have the will or means to get out?

Perhaps that's unfair? But I lived in Coalville, Leics, UK and Newcastle on Tyne, UK in the 1980s and 1990s both coalmining cities that were decimated by closure of the mines in that period. They had a similar look and feeling of desolation and abandonment that Richwood has. I remember how very hard it was in those circumstances to drum up much energy and belief in the future.

So perhaps the sense of urgency is really about the urgent need to create quality of life – as someone suggested, or maybe it's about developing community pride in accomplishments, or working together for the common good? There are many small West Virginian communities that have recreated themselves. I heard people mention Elkins, Thomas, and Fayetteville among others. The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce presents a list of small gems like these and West Virginia living presents a slightly different list. Presumably there are things that could be learned from their experiences of regeneration.

On Richwood's bright side, the 'spunky mayor' Bob Johnson came to the town for employment in 1981 and full of lovely stories of its past glories and desperately keen to restore its standing. Similarly committed is the newcomer Nancy Leffingwell who now leads the Richwood Chamber of Commerce. Bob's desire to get the conference sited in Richwood is testament to his determination. He 'called me [Rebecca Kimmons] back, not once or twice, but three times to ask if the Create West Virginia Team had chosen his town'. Maybe in bringing in the ideas and the possibilities via the conference Johnson will be successful in getting the guiding coalition i.e. the group of people to spearhead the change (Kotter's second step) to encourage town dwellers to believe that change is necessary. They've seen demonstrations via the pop-ups of what is possible. Maybe if they like the look of it they'll be part of the action to 'make it so' more permanently.

It seems that to successfully re-create people have to give up on some things: the idea that someone will swoop down and rescue them, or that a big organization will come and open a huge plant or factory that will employ the population, or that they don't have the wherewithal amongst themselves to make a difference.

I saw that happen in Coalville and Newcastle. Realising they weren't going to get much in the way of a magic wand, the local communities finally got together to help themselves sometimes by following the example of, or being galvanized by, outsiders coming to live in their communities. John Bright owner of the Purple Fiddle in Thomas WV is one such outsider. He described his attitude as one of continuing against all odds and having faith in his dream. Ten years from when he moved to Thomas and started up he says he's 'getting there', and Thomas is one of the small towns (population 500) that from a drab past is, according to the Washington Post, now 'popping'.

Once the urgency is established and there's a guiding coalition. Kotter suggests that the next step is to establish the vision. One of the activities in my talk was to invite the audience to 'Think Big' on what they saw Richwood could be famous for. Their list was long and fell into four main categories:

Digital: become the face of a digital and placeless economy, be the center for the development of remote/rural wifi/broadband and the internet of things. One person had a vision of Richwood as 'a big city atmosphere' in a small town with markets, cafes, small artisan shops, in-town apartments, in order to draw telecommuters into our community.
Artisan: Use the shops as workshops and retail spaces for artisans. This worked well during the conference with artisans showing jewelry, hand made bikes, handbags, handmade guitars and wood gifts, jams and jellies, wine, weaving, and pottery among them. See the Virginia Artisan's Trail for a good example of what could be in West Virginia
Outdoors/Nature: be the center for specialized guided nature tours, map walking and hiking, be the trailhead for the Monongahela National Forest , open up access to the River Cherry, set up a BMX center for skateboards, dirt bikes, add more bike trails and fishing haunts. Establish an artificial ski slope with ski tuition.
Business: be the regional supplier of locally grown fruit and vegetables, be the plant center of the state – education, native plants, etc., develop a wood center in Richwood with a history of the lumber industry past, present and future. Set up a brew-pub/restaurant in downtown Richwood something with affordable options for locals and pricier stuff for hipsters(!) Set up a world-class music school with events locally and at other venues. (Richwood High School does have an excellent marching band the Lumberjack Express), establish a mental health retreat with drop-in groups.

Kotter's fourth and fifth principles are to communicate the vision and empower everyone to participate in acting on it. In another exercise we did people noted that communication is critical and a statement repeated in various ways was that 'we need to begin dialogue in our community'. Beyond that attendees noted the need to connect people, share their skills, take a skills inventory of what's there in the community, recruit volunteers to work on projects, recognize that everyone has something they can bring to community re-creation, and that they can be resources for each other. Another exercise during my talk was a 'skills swap' which people enjoyed a lot and realized the huge wealth of skills in the room, including risk taking, speaking German, building houses, bicycle advocacy, and many, many more.

The sixth of Kotter's change principles is to come up with short term wins, a proof of concept idea. I think the conference organization has already started to do this. For example, high schoolers and other community members cleaned up the town's streets and shops ready for the conference, volunteers did all kinds of work to get the conference logistics sorted out, partners in the conference provided stuff. The way the conference was brought into being was a blueprint for how the town could function on a day to day basis.

His seventh and eighth principles are to consolidate improvements and to institutionalize new approaches. Here I think lies the Richwood challenge. Now the conference is over there may be the tendency to breathe a sigh of relief and think 'good, that's done'. But really this is the moment to begin. The Conference's success is a demonstration that the community can pull in resources and work together. Now it has to continue to do this. As one of the attendees said 'we have creative people and beautiful places – we could create connected communities focusing on quality of life. If we think big we could get to the point where West Virginia is known as the best place to live in the world. And we need to start small to do this. We'll begin by hosting a community workshop to suggest projects and plan how to tackle them.'

So I look forward to hearing of progress on this. It's a great challenge to have. I think the community of Richwood will be up for it – with a little help from their friends. If you've re-created a town (or a state) let me know how.