New South Media Inc. founder Nikki Bowman spends a lot of time in the car as she drives the winding roads of West Virginia in search of stories for West Virginia Living, West Virginia Weddings and West Virginia Focus magazines.
While on these long and multiple road trips, Bowman found herself asking the question “What would it take to turn this town around?” as she motored through small town after small town.
“There are some towns that are thriving and are doing really well, and then there are towns you see, you drive through them and you think, ‘man, what would it take to turn this town around?’” Bowman said. “It’s got great assets, but it’s just kind of down in the dumps and needs a little help. That has been with me all this time.”
Those thoughts led Bowman to create the campaign, “Turn This Town Around,” where eight towns vie to be the top town in their region. One town in northern West Virginia and one from the southern part will be selected as the winners through public voting.
Bowman took her idea to West Virginia Community Development Hub and West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and the three entities are working together to help the winning towns.
“I came to them with this idea and said, ‘I want to start a campaign called “Turn This Town Around” where we just really get the community involved,’” Bowman said. “We want to do something about it and we want to see action.”
Bowman said the Hub really helped, narrowing down what needs to be done to help smaller towns “turn around.”
“What we’re doing is an experiment,” she said. “We’re doing a living laboratory. Because this is an experiment, we’ve got to figure out what’s manageable. We want to have an impact. Our hope is this is a long-term thing. It’s not like we’re going in and then in one year, pulling out. That isn’t it at all.”
The committee narrowed its search down to eight towns: Grafton, Hundred, Petersburg, Rowlesburg, Alderson, Hillsboro, Matewan and Pineville.
To vote for a northern and southern town, visit http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/turnthistownaround
Voting closes February 14 and once the results are revealed, Bowman said the committee will “hit the ground running” with the campaign.
“As soon as that’s announced, we’ll be setting up meetings with the community leaders in each of those towns,” she said. “That will probably happen right as soon as humanly possible, hopefully the following week. Then after that, we’re going to have an honest conversation about what they see as the assets of the community, what are the challenges. We’ll do a lot of listening at that level and have more of a town hall type of meeting to talk with the group of community leaders.”
Sometimes, in order to do what is best for a town, it is important to have outside work come in and help, Bowman explained.
“This is what happens,” she said. “People who live in communities and have been there for a long time, sometimes you’re overwhelmed by the challenges and you don’t know where to start. I’ve talked to business owners in every corner of the state and that usually is one of the biggest challenges is that they’re just overwhelmed. That’s why “Turn This Town Around” helps, because we’re going to come in and help.”
Bowman said there isn’t a formula for something like this because each town is different and it is hard to have set plans until the towns are selected.
“You look at Hillsboro for one,” she said. “I spend a lot of time in Pocahontas County. Some of our communities are drive-through communities and you drive through them to some other place and what they need, what Hillsboro needs might be different than what a Grafton needs or a Matewan. All our communities are a little bit different, but you’re situated in such an incredible location. There’s great potential in Hillsboro.”
While this is the first year for this campaign, Bowman hopes it isn’t the last.
“In hopes that this is a smashing success, that next year, we will have more communities and be able to do this and have a bigger capacity,” she said. “It will be pretty amazing. I’m just really excited about the opportunity. I think it’s going to be a lot of work. There are going to be a lot of challenges, a lot of difficulties. But, you know what, that’s the way it is and in order to improve and advance our towns, it’s what needs to happen.”
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org