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Creating 'an idea of what could be'

Kenny Kemp
Buildings along Richwood's Main Street are reflected in the windows of The Mall of Richwood as Bill Leffingwell and Catherine Moore carry a tarp to hang in a storefront. Leffingwell, Moore and several other volunteers are readying the Nicholas County town for the Create West Virginia Conference at the end of the month.
Kenny Kemp Bob Henry Baber patches cement on the sidewalk outside his building in downtown Richwood.
Kenny Kemp Bill Leffingwell, 78, cleans the mirror of an old barber shop that's for sale in Richwood.
Kenny Kemp Dan Scribe works on a display table in Richwood's Deitz-Spencer building.
Kenny Kemp Rebecca Kimmons is director of the Create West Virginia Conference.

RICHWOOD, W.Va. -- Cars traveling along Richwood's Main Street slowed to a creep Saturday, noticing many vacant and dormant buildings filled with workers and signs of life.

Since mid-September volunteers have been working on Saturdays to clean up 16 buildings along Main Street that will host stations for the Create West Virginia Conference that is taking place in Richwood from Oct. 24 to 26.

"There's a community spirit that has been revived here," said Rebecca Kimmons, the conference's director.

Each Saturday, 10 to 20 volunteers have helped Kimmons pull up old wooden floors, pick up trash, patch concrete along the sidewalks and ready the Nicholas County town to host the conference, Kimmons said.

"It has been the most challenging thing I've ever done in my career," Kimmons said of the 11-month project of bringing the conference to Richwood. "It's been exciting. It's an idea of what could be."

Create West Virginia aims to bring together businesses, artists and entrepreneurs to spark new, creative economic opportunities throughout the state. By holding the conference in a town like Richwood, which boomed in the middle of the 20th century before falling into decline, the conference hopes to showcase how small towns can reinvent themselves and their economies.

One Main Street storefront, now standing completely vacant, will house a 3-D printer station that Kimmons hopes will open up new ideas to area residents and conference attendees. Across the street, The Mall of Richwood building will become a café.

This was Catherine Moore's first weekend volunteering. She'd never been involved with any Create West Virginia projects before, but this year's conference caught her attention because it is in a small town, instead of an urban area.

The 31-year-old Fayette County resident said the conference is putting its money where its mouth is and she wanted to be involved.

"There's a lot of work to be done but, like all of these small towns that are kind of skeletons with a lot of spirit here in Southern West Virginia, there's just so much potential," Moore said. "It's exciting to think about the possibilities here."

Previous conferences have been held in Charleston and at Snowshoe and Stonewall resorts.

When Nancy Leffingwell found out the conference was coming to Richwood she became excited about the potential impact.

"This is something that we need," said Leffingwell who is executive director of the Richwood Area Chamber of Commerce.

The conference is demonstrating its ability to think outside the box by coming here, Leffingwell said.

"Our kids go away for school and they never come back," Leffingwell said. "They have to have something to come back to."

Bob Henry Baber remembers traveling to West Virginia each year from New York. He recalls going over to the G.C. Murphy store and the smell of peanuts filling the air while family pets roamed about the store's toy section.

"This is like jumpstarting the town," Baber said. "It's like getting the jumper cables out and starting the battery and saying, 'Oh wow, the car still runs.' Yes, it needs a lot of work, but it's got life."

Baber owns the Deitz-Spencer building on Main Street. He said the conference coming to town prompted him to transform his building into an art studio now, instead of two years from now, as he'd been considering.

His studio will be open and free to conference attendees and residents of Richwood. People can come in and make mosaics, with Baber's help, in about a half hour.

Baber served as Richwood's mayor from 2004 to 2007 and said change in Richwood is needed.

Create West Virginia strives to foster creative, diverse, technologically advanced and competitive communities throughout the Mountain State. The group wants communities and individuals to think creatively, as well as globally, to foster economic growth.

"It's not about Richwood really, it's about West Virginia," Kimmons said. "It's about what can be done in these communities if people will reassess what their sustainable assets are."

More information about the conference, registration and volunteering may be found at www.createwv.com.

Reach Caitlin Cook at caitlin.cook@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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