How an “Arts and Culture Economy” Rebuilt a Former Coal Town

“More and more artists started moving in, and we ended with the crazy, amazing mix of people in town.”
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Members of Ohio-based band Mo’ Mojo perform at The Purple Fiddle.

Photo from The Purple Fiddle.

Thomas, West Virginia, like a lot of municipalities in the Mountain State, owes its initial development to coal.

Today, however, the downtown of the small eastern West Virginia town has redeveloped in response to another economic sector—arts and culture.

“All over West Virginia, the arts and culture economy, coupled with outdoor recreation and tourism, are just growing,” said Emily Wilson-Hauger, program director of Woodlands Development Group.

The trend is national, according to a National Governor’s Association action guide that describes how rural communities can build on culture and art to renew distressed economies.

In Thomas, the downtown was nearly lifeless before artists started establishing businesses, Wilson-Hauger said. The effort to rebuild picked up in the early 2000s with the launch of a local music venue, The Purple Fiddle, whose founders saw opportunity instead of decline.

“There was the Fiddle, an antique shop, and a bar. That’s it. The rest of the buildings were empty,” Wilson-Hauger said.

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“Then a few artists started to trickle in after the music scene developed, young artists that were getting priced out of Pittsburgh and D.C. and wherever else,” she said. “A couple of these artists moved in and rented downtown space really cheap; they lived upstairs.”

Wilson-Hauger, whose organization has helped the downtown to plan and find funding, said the town has a new enthusiasm.

“More and more artists started moving in, and we ended with the crazy, amazing mix of people in town. Artists and friends of artists. They could rent or buy these buildings really cheaply, and many are still process of fixing them up.”

Thomas isn’t the only town in the region that has improved a local economy with arts and cultural development.

“I’ve seen this happening in other parts of our region [Appalachia] heavily focused on the arts and economic opportunity through the arts and revitalization,” Wilson-Hauger said. “These artists are shaping the communities they’d like to see, really revitalizing community around the arts. And it’s important to say that there was already a great arts tradition, a great music tradition here to build on. This gives it a little boost.”

The sector is a significant economic engine in many rural communities, according to the National Governors Association’s new guide on rural development and the arts. Economically “struggling rural communities have found new life through smart public policies that boost the creative sector,” the guide says.

“We found our spot in this mix in a very organic way.”

Among other examples, the guide reports on Montana’s Artrepreneur Program, which includes 10 months of entrepreneurial training for rural visual artists, and southwestern Virginia’s “Crooked Road,” a heritage music trail with venues for traditional gospel, bluegrass and mountain music. The guide says these programs have injected millions of dollars into their state’s rural economies.

In Thomas, local leadership combined with technical assistance and access to capital helped ramp up things, Wilson-Hauger said.

“The artists formed a volunteer nonprofit organization focused on downtown revitalization, so we help with their planning efforts, provide technical assistance to the group and still are really helping them implement some of their bigger projects,” Wilson-Hauger said, explaining her organization’s role.

The Purple Fiddle, top, was originally a general store opened in 1903 by Joseph DePollo. Bottom, The Purple Fiddle in December.

Photos from The Purple Fiddle.

“In more recent years, we’ve been able to provide direct technical assistance to some of those building owners to help with their predevelopment costs, architectural services, etc. to get them up over the hump and get the buildings up to par,” she said. “Then we come in with the CDFI [community development financial institutions] and provide lending. We’ve lent to a number of galleries and some of the artists themselves.”

Rural CDFIs provide loans, capital and financial products to rural communities that are underserved by traditional banks. Woodlands Community Lenders works in Barbour, Randolph, and Tucker counties in north central West Virginia. Since 2012, the nonprofit lender has provided more than $1.4 million in loans to the region, helping to launch 20 news businesses and provide working capital for 50 established entrepreneurs.

“We found our spot in this mix in a very organic way, and that’s with lending, technical assistance and planning help,” Wilson-Hauger said.

Though the organization got involved through affordable housing development, Wilson-Hauger said that Woodlands Development Group decided to help support the arts because of the sector’s role in leading downtown revitalization. “We’ve focused on a three-county area and kept our organization small on purpose. We have good and effective local relationships with county governments, city governments, volunteer groups, nonprofit groups and other institutions.”

The local efforts have also been spurred by funding from U. S. Department of Treasury’s CDFI Fund, Housing and Urban Development money, Trans-federal Highway Administration money that comes through the West Virginia Division of Highways for trail building, EPA money for brownfields projects that clean up vacant lots for parks with many arts components, Department of Agriculture Rural Development programs, the Economic Development Administration and the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Recreational infrastructure is also part of the plan. The decommissioned railroad the runs past downtown Thomas has been converted into a biking and walking trail.

This article was originally published by Daily Yonder. It has been edited for YES! Magazine.