Guest Essays, Opinion

Guest essay: This New Deal town’s history may be a guide to new state economy

by Randy Vealey

Those who do learn history may sometimes be fortunate enough to repeat it.

Yes, I’m standing the common saying — “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” — on its head. What I’m advocating is that one brilliant chapter of history actually should guide our state’s public and private economic future.

The example I cite is Arthurdale: a small, unincorporated Preston County town whose history is maintained by the nonprofit Arthurdale Heritage in a museum complex and other facilities, as well as through projects and events.

And also by the scores of descendants of the original homesteaders who still live there today.

In the early 1930s, faced with the extreme poverty, joblessness and hopelessness of the Great Depression, the Roosevelt administration launched numerous initiatives to counter the despair in our cities and counties across the nation.

One such initiative ensued soon after Eleanor Roosevelt visited Scotts Run in Monongalia County. The slums she saw there, where miners who had been out of work for years and their families lived, appalled her. But rather than return to Washington and wring her hands, she resolved to do something about it.

Of course, the rest is history, but the kind that was started within two weeks of her visit to Scotts Run, as plans for Arthurdale got underway in Washington.

Today, our state does not face the crushing, widespread poverty and unemployment of the 1930s, but it does face an almost similar sense of hopelessness or malaise that holds West Virginia fast in its grip.

Look no further than most health indicators: the opioid epidemic, the sagging coal industry, a stagnant manufacturing base, per capita income, rates of higher learning, seriously flawed infrastructure, population decline and so on.

Much like the premise of the Smithsonian exhibit Crossroads: Change in Rural America, on display now at Arthurdale through Jan. 21, our state is at a crossroads of its own and of a different kind today.

At the center of that crossroads is our state’s economy, which shapes everything from our quality of life to tax revenues and from capital investments to paychecks and beyond.

No, Arthurdale is not going to change which direction we go, but it symbolizes one of the key cogs, that of tourism, in the transition to a new economy in West Virginia that, so far, continues to be underestimated.

The Justice administration in Charleston has done more for this sector of the economy than perhaps any other, starting with the reorganization of the state’s Division of Tourism and a host of initiatives from its start in 2017. But much more could and should be done.

For instance, grants to tourism-based nonprofits and private businesses for advertising in and out of state. Or facilitating public-private partnerships to fund repairs and upgrades of everything from sidewalks to plumbing at sites.

No, tourism is not going to generate the high-end jobs, income and tax revenues — at first — that extraction industries have in the past. But those extraction industries are more often floundering these days, or altogether sinking, like an aging ship.

Tourism, combined with light manufacturing — including manufacture of solar panels, food products, etc.; new kinds of crops, including hemp and bamboo; and investing in extraction of rare earth metals from acid mine drainage — and other efforts that better entrepreneurial minds than mine can develop bespeak of a new state economy.

What Arthurdale accomplished nearly a century ago — this idea of moving forward with a new, sustainable and enlightened local economy — is more relevant today than ever.

The current economy was put in place for a different kind of West Virginia, one that relied on a mining and manufacturing economy that bears little resemblance to the service, information and tourism economy of our present and our future.

The changes I see won’t be simple or overnight. But to continue muddling along as our population declines and ages, as does our economy, without new ideas that emphasize tourism will only allow those doomed parts of history to repeat themselves.

Randy Vealey is a volunteer at Arthurdale Heritage who lives in Morgantown. He’s also  a retired journalist and former opinion editor for The Dominion Post.