For a while, it was just a hole in the ground.
Gone are the long abandoned Best Furniture and Katzen buildings in Welch, local landmarks that – until recently – were reminders of the once bustling community’s thriving economy when coal was king.
But there’s more than meets the eye at this excavated downtown site.
Thanks to five years of planning and organizing, Reconnecting McDowell’s vision of constructing a five- story apartment complex for teachers is coming true. Total project cost is estimated at $6 million with a tentative completion date set for September 2017.
Demolition began in June for the nonprofit’s aptly named “Renaissance Village” because in many ways it reflects the area’s rebirth – and determination to revitalize the county’s school system, said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.
It will have 28-32 units aimed at drawing teachers to the county, educators who previously couldn’t relocate there due to a lack of available housing. Plans call for the building’s first floor to have commercial space for a businesses such as a coffee shop or local restaurant to help draw local folks into it, too.
While she was struck by the region’s beautiful mountains, there was an even larger obstacle on the horizon: the decline of fossil fuel usage, resulting in a national drop in coal demand and low natural gas prices.
There was also a human cost associated with its faltering economy, one that impacted local children as their families grappled with everything from joblessness to illegal drug use.
Hope was nearly lost, dreams were almost forgotten.
That’s when Weingarten, her education union members and an “unprecedented public/private partnership” was formed in 2011 to help community members address these needs. She credits state Board of Education member and former first lady Gayle Manchin with having been its catalyst.
“We knew there wasn’t a lot we could do about what had happened to the bottom falling out of the coal market nationally. But we could clearly see how badly it had hurt this part of West Virginia. The economic part has been the hardest, but we are addressing it with the Renaissance Village,” she said.
Rents will be kept low so young teachers can afford them, and the goal is to attract – as well as keep – quality educators.
Costs will be kept lower through ongoing fundraising aimed at the building’s construction rather than taking out a mortgage.
Approximately $1 million has been raised and Weingarten anticipates the $500,000 to $1 million that’s still needed will be easier to obtain after November’s general election is held.
In the meantime, engineer fill is being put in the hole and contractor bids are being reviewed.
Superintendent of Schools Nelson Spencer chuckles a little when he talks about the progress being made there.
“Wouldn’t you know it? They ran into some issues with the hole in the ground. They found some kind of old tank that had been in the basement of one of the buildings, so things come up unexpectedly that take a little more time. But I noticed this morning it is being filled in, so that’s a good sign,” he said.
It’s an exciting development because the county still has 12 teacher vacancies despite classes having started in August. There’s also a problem with teacher retention and educators who are teaching out of their field.
“We typically have 12 to 20 vacancies this time of year, but those numbers are a little bit deceiving because we filled a lot of classrooms with a lot of new people this year that’s due to turnover and retention problems. We’ve probably brought in another 20 new positions, and you add on top of that the individuals who are teaching out of field on a temporary permit.
“Overall, it really is an exorbitant number for a county our size. So with this kind of nice facility, we are hoping we can get teachers to think about coming here and will be able to stay,” he said.
Quality teachers are increasingly important as the local tax base continues to shrink, families move and enrollment drops.
The county has lost about 500 students in the last five years—and that means substantially less money from the state-aid formula which is based on enrollment.
At its peak, there were 125,000 county residents in the 1950s compared to just 19,000 people living there now, he said. There are now about 3,300 students in the school system.
Little by little, things are now looking up for many community members, parents and children.
Today approximately 125 partners, who’ve donated millions of dollars, continue to use their collective clout to leverage additional resources. They are also addressing various local instructional, social, emotional and health challenges.
For example, one company helped the county acquire broadband across the school district. That’s something that wouldn’t have happened as quickly without the nonprofit’s help, he said.
Another foundation gave a grant this spring to provide 14,000 books to students. Middle school students received new laptops in 2014.
High school students are thrilled to take trips to Charleston and Washington, D.C., courtesy of AT&T with the Broader Horizons Program, as they contemplate going to college and what profession to pursue. It is literally a new world for them, both Weingarten and Nelson agree.
“This gives them a real opportunity to look at their future, and virtually every one of these students have gone to college. There hasn’t been a student in it who hasn’t told us this program has been transformational for them,” she said.
“Kids are kids. You find their aspirations and their hope in their eyes, and you connect with that knowing they want opportunities to be successful.”
Nelson is impressed with the extensive networking being done by the program.
“Those Reconnecting McDowell connections are really making a difference, and they have been there for us in a lot of ways. Now it is really coming to light as the teacher village is getting closer to reality,” he said.
Greg Cruey, a math teacher at Southside K-8 and president of the AFT McDowell County chapter, said it is no easier to keep teachers in War, the community where his school is located.
War, which got its name from War Creek, was the setting for the “October Sky” movie about NASA scientist Homer Hickam. He wrote about his experiences at the town’s Big Creek High School in the novel “Rocket Boys.” It is also known as West Virginia’s most southern city.
Mountains must be crossed to reach it, while narrow winding roads are difficult to travel even in good weather. In some places, roads aren’t wide enough for a car to pass a school bus without one of the vehicles getting on the berm.
It’s so isolated that Cruey and his wife Cheryl (they work at the same school) as well as many of their peers live in neighboring Tazwell County, Virginia.
While some are from the Bluefield area in Mercer County, the teachers who live locally usually have family or another tie to the immediate community.
Recalling a teacher who’d come from Delaware, Cruey said she’d only lasted two years because of the housing shortage.
“If you think the situation is bad in Welch, just try getting some place to live here. It’s almost impossible,” he said with a sigh.
Although he isn’t sure how much the new teacher village will impact his area, Cruey is an enthusiastic supporter of the teachers’ union and their continuing efforts to make a difference.
“Who knows? Maybe one day they will want to build something like that here in this community. We would really like that.”
Project manager Bob Brown, who works out of the ATF’s Charleston office, traveled to other states to see how “live-in communities” function and he is optimistic about how the new housing units will help ease the county’s teacher shortage.
Ironically, he visited an urban area where this same concept was successfully implemented.
“I first learned about the idea of a teacher village in Baltimore, because they were having difficulty getting teachers to teach in the inner city schools. So they converted a couple of industrial sites into apartment complexes that were actually more of a miniature community with some common areas and activities available for young aspiring teachers,” Brown said.
In addition to affordable rent, the complexes were close enough to the schools that neither parking nor commuting times were a problem.
He’s excited about the local proposal, and how well it has been received.
“What we’d really like to do is make this the hub of the downtown community. We’re so excited because we really think that will happen.”
Just seeing the hole being filled is exciting.
“That hole was a beautiful sight, and especially now that it shows how much progress we’re making.”