A VISION OF CALHOUN'S FUTURE

(01/01/2009)

About five years ago there was a panel discussion on "The Future of Calhoun County" at Calhoun Middle-High School.

It was gazing into the 21st Century, the barriers and the possibilities.

The panel included Ron Blankenship, Superintendent of Schools; Barbara Lay, CEO of Minnie Hamilton Health Care Center; Tom McColley, Craftsman and small business developer; and Bob Weaver, President of the County Commission and editor of The Hur Herald. Maggie Bennett was the moderator.

Little has changed in five years, other than insult to injury with the current economic collapse of the USA.

Calhoun citizens have always said they pay little mind to recessions, because the county and most of West Virginia has been in a permanent recession.

They have had pride in being able to hunker down and survive hard times.

Much of the 2005 discussion was how to overcome the stagnant economy, declining population, jobs leaving the area, loss of retail businesses, and little money to improve infrastructure.

Most of Calhoun's problems are shared with about 25 other rural West Virginia counties, they said.

Tens of thousands of production jobs have left the state, victims of "free trade" and the globalized economy. Hundreds of shell buildings stand empty, begging for use.

Not only have the higher paying union and non-union jobs left, but most of minimum wage production jobs are gone too.

County school superintendent Ron Blankenship said the county's greatest asset is the quality of life. He said the county educational system will likely be in trouble in the next twenty years, with declining student population.

Since then, Calhoun Middle-High School has been placed on temporary accreditation, while failing audits and not measuring up to No Child Left Behind.

Blankenship said it is likely county school systems will be consolidated, still maintaining "We will still have some insulation from the problems of the outside world."

The control of education is rapidly being removed from parents, citizens and local school boards by the state and federal government.

Funding rural school systems with declining enrollment is an even greater challenge today.

"The State of West Virginia is yet to focus on small businesses as the primary method of economic development," said Tom McColley. He said building shell buildings and industrial parks has not been the answer.

McColley said funding has been cut to the West Virginia arts community.

"Here in Calhoun we have been blessed with Heartwood in the Hills and many projects funded by Lights On." he said.

"It would be just as effective to have 25 small cottage-like businesses," as a small job-producing company," McColley said.

There is little indication the focus has been shifted toward helping small businesses, since McColley made his comments.

McColley and his wife Connie came to Calhoun thirty years ago.

Minnie Hamilton Health System CEO Barb Lay said "We have strength in the people who live here." While providing health care has been a challenge, Minnie Hamilton has been able to use some of the problems to access better health care," to the under-served area, she said.

Minnie Hamilton Health System and the local school system are the largest employers. Lay discussed trying to attract more retirees to the community.

Weaver spoke about Calhoun's natural resources.

"Calhoun has some of the world's great deposits of deep natural gas, the ability to store huge quantities of water without much investment in narrow hollows and the ever present forest, which still covers most of the county," he said.

"In West Virginia, communities have benefited little from such resources. McDowell and Mingo County have likely produced more coal than any area in America, but they are among the poorest," he said.

"The rules of commerce and government are still against us, to benefit from that which rests at our feet," he concluded.

The Appalachian Regional Commission, created in the 1960s, had a mission of bringing infrastructure to the poorest Appalachian counties.

Research regarding the ARC spending of several billion dollars shows that most of the money went to help urban areas that were already developed and prospering.

The ARC says they have changed their formula to help the most impoverished counties.

All the panelists said better access to the information superhighway and high-speed access to the Internet would help growth and development.

They expressed concerns about the local, independent phone company to adequately update their system.

Since then, Frontier has been able to improve high-speed Internet services near most of the sub-stations in Calhoun.

Looking ahead 25 years, there seemed to be little optimism getting an improved access road through the county.

The Blue-Gray U. S. 33 upgrade has been on the board since the 1960's and the Little Kanawha Parkway since the 1970's.

In 2005, those projects were still pipe dreams, barely on a pending list. Those projects in 2009 are barely making a long list.

The county's population, according to the US Census is predicted to decrease more in the next 25 years, or remain stagnant.

The census will be taken this year, to be announced in 2010. Calhoun's census is now estimated at about 7,300 and Grantsville's population is estimated at about 500.

The population could change with urban dwellers wanting to move to a safer environment, particularly if terrorism continues.

All of the panelists felt "a sense of community" could still be maintained.

The topography in this part of the world has always been described as a curse and a blessing.

Weaver said the county will have a diverse population in the next few years, with "outsiders" exceeding the families of origin.

Small counties with a small population and a low tax base will likely be consolidated, a movement long-planned by some legislators.

Government has embraced corporate economic models that destroy community life - bigger is better, proclaiming that merger, centralization, consolidation and now globalization save money and create prosperity.

There is little evidence of that.

Members of the 2005 audience asked questions and expressed positive ideas, including listening to the "views of outside people" who would like to help, better networking, and possibly creating assisted-living centers.

An assisted-living center has since been created in Grantsville - Aging with Grace.

The 2005 round-table was one of the events in conjunction with “Yesterday’s Tomorrow's,” a Smithsonian exhibit which was on display locally.

A time capsule, which will be opened 50 years hence, was buried at the Calhoun County Park on June 1, 2003.


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