Walking the ‘Fine Line’ of Rural Development and Gentrification
The Tucker, Barbour, and Randolph County pocket of central West Virginia is a beautiful part of the state. Embraced by the million-acre Monongahela National Forest, the region has become a prized location for well-appointed second homes and retirement tranquility. There’s lots to do: ski resorts, both downhill and cross country; vast miles of hiking and biking trails; campgrounds galore – an outdoor recreation mecca.
All of which is a boost to the local economy. And it’s needed. The coal industry, which once helped fuel this economy, has been in steady decline. Barbour County ranks 51st of West Virginia’s 55 counties in per capita income – this in the third-poorest state in the country. And though Tucker County, to the east, is faring better, few are getting rich.
For three decades, Woodlands Development Group has advanced economic opportunities in these three heavily rural counties while striving to keep them affordable. It’s a delicate balance.
Woodlands develops sustainable, affordable housing and supports economic initiatives in Barbour, Randolph, and Tucker counties. It assists with the development of parks, trails, community centers, and greenspaces. Its lending arm, Woodlands Community Lenders, offers access to capital and technical assistance to businesses and nonprofits.
The Tucker County towns of Thomas and Davis, each with a population under 1,000, have become attractive art and outdoor recreation destinations, with thrumming downtown businesses in storefronts that once stood shuttered.
But shadowing this boon are concerns that the artists/entrepreneurs and others who reanimated these streets will no longer be able to afford to reside here and that this same dynamic could eventually play out across the region.
“We weren’t working on building a cool little destination town,” said Seth Pitts, an artist and gallery owner in Thomas. Rather, the vision was to build a community “where we want to live. I’m just hoping the people who helped revitalize the downtown are able to stay here.”
Woodlands Development Group shares that ambition.
The group is headquartered in the town of Elkins, in Randolph County, which borders, to the south, Barbour and Tucker counties. The organization was launched in 1995 by the Randolph County Housing Authority as a “nimble” resource, in Executive Director Dave Clark’s words, to address affordable housing. It’s evolved over the years.
Downtown renovation is a primary focus.
“We make direct investments in downtown buildings,” Clark said, “but we also can support private developers and private building owners, particularly if they want to take an old building and convert it from vacant space into a marketable space. So we’ll help them with the whole gamut.” That can include design, construction estimates, financing, and more.
“We’ve gotten more and more involved with tax-credit programs,” Clark said, “which really are the big-dollar programs in community development across the country – historic tax credits and low-income housing tax credits, predominantly.”
“I like to think of Woodlands as, first and foremost, a community-planning and organizing entity,” he said, which is why it remains largely focused on those three core counties. They comprise some 2,000 square miles but only 50,000 people. That focus allows the Woodlands staff to “keep our finger on the pulse and be more responsive and engaged.”
“I don’t think we’re doing anything magical or special,” Clark said. Staff members live throughout the region, attending city council meetings, joining the Rotary Club. “We’re present.”
“They’re holistic in nature,” said Vonda Poynter, senior vice president of membership for Fahe, a network of community-building Appalachia-based nonprofits, of which Woodlands is a member.
“Some organizations can’t step out of their lane to address an issue,” Poynter said, whereas Woodlands offers “creative solutions” designed to meet each need.
Elkins, a town of 7,500, has long been the hub of this three-county region. Among its attractions are the depot from which five scenic Durbin and Greenbriar Valley Railroad excursions embark. The Augusta Heritage Center holds a three-week summer event featuring world-class musicians. And the Mountain State Forest Festival attracts up to 100,000 people each autumn.
Woodlands’ biggest project to date is currently underway in downtown Elkins: a revitalization of the grand old Tygart Hotel. The hotel was converted to apartments a half-century or so ago and had incrementally fallen into “what we often refer to as ‘housing of last resort,’” Clark said.
In 2015, community leaders asked if Woodlands would be interested in purchasing the building and restoring it to its hotel origin. “I honestly didn’t think it would ever fly as a hotel,” Clark said. Woodlands brought in a Virginia group that specializes in boutique hotels. “They came back, and the numbers looked really pretty good; they thought there was a lot of potential.”
“Someone might have said, in a feasibility study, ‘It’d be better to tear that sucker down and build new – which you might have spent just about the same amount of money on,” Poynter said. “But doing something that preserves a building and invests in the community in that manner is, again, a very holistic approach to their housing and community-development work.”
The 56-room Tygart Hotel is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year, a $17-million-plus project.
Meanwhile, Woodlands Development Group is working with six new downtown-building owners, assisting with renovations. Young people who had left are returning and investing.
Among the businesses that will be making its downtown debut is Big Timber Brewing – owned by locals who returned, and one of Woodlands’ first borrowers – which will be relocating its taproom a block from the hotel. And the local development authority recently received funding to build an event center.
The hotel project has “definitely facilitated a lot of development,” Clark said.
‘A Direct Connection’
The town of Thomas is 37 vertiginous miles to the northeast up two-lane U.S.-48. “Hidden gem” is the all-too-well-worn term used to describe Thomas and its sister town, Davis, six miles farther along 48.
A couple of dozen relatively new storefronts, most of them formerly abandoned, now adorn Thomas’s Front Street. About two-thirds of them, Clark estimates, are operated by local artists. Woodlands has played a critical role in this development.
Seth Pitts is an illustrator and writer who’s been foundational to the town’s revitalization. He and his business partners received a loan from Woodlands to purchase the building that became both his gallery and home.
“I don’t think a bank necessarily would have loaned to us,” Pitts said. “But they know us,” he said of Woodlands. Woodlands’ staff’s direct connection to the community, he said, allowed for them to “look at our assets in a more creative way” – to appreciate what they brought to the community.
Finding the Balance
Given that so much of the surrounding acreage is protected parkland, potential options for new housing development in the region are limited.
A four-lane road now connects Davis to the Washington, D.C., metropolis. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive that used to take four.
Clark noted that second-home development and Airbnb conversion are incrementally nudging folks out of Davis and Thomas. Workforce families are migrating down toward the town of Parsons, 15 miles to the south, which, he said, isn’t an ideal alternative. It’s a 2,000-foot climb from Parsons to Thomas, a drive that can be treacherous in the winter.
Barring Airbnbs outright is probably not the right solution, Pitts said. More practical is encouraging structures that combine a unit or more of affordable housing with Airbnb or something else that accommodates the owner recouping their investment.
A bottom-line objective in future development, he said, should be promoting solutions that facilitate those who’ve put in the sweat equity to continue pursuing their ambitions.
Back in Elkins, Dustin Smith reflects on that town’s past and future. Smith, Woodland’s director of project development, is a northern Pennsylvania native who came to work for the group a decade ago as an AmeriCorps member and stayed on.
“I feel like I’ve seen a lot of change in the last 10 years, and it feels like we’re really kind of on the precipice,” he said.
Clark agrees: “It feels like Elkins maybe hasn’t turned the corner but is getting there. More storefronts are open and you’re seeing many more people downtown at night.”
Smith recognizes that delicate balance: “Rural gentrification is a fine line.”
“It’s exciting,” Clark allowed, “but it’s also a little unsettling. There’s an element of, ‘What are we contributing to?’ But, “so far, from my perspective, I think we’re on the right track.”
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