by Andrea Salina Fleming for the Fairmont News
Leaders from all over the state of West Virginia met Aug. 17 to discuss how housing, agriculture and economic development can intersect to collectively grow and diversify our economy and cultural landscape in the Mountain State, now and in the future.
The Aligning Summit was hosted by CommunityWorks in WV and the West Virginia National Guard with funding from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.
The running theme in talks at the Summit is that West Virginia is facing several crises and at the foundation of those crises is housing. Without housing, people lack the resources needed to obtain jobs, transportation, identification and other necessary services. Not only does the state lack a strong inventory of safe, decent affordable housing, but also moderate income level dwellings. Most communities have housing stock constructed in the early to mid-1900’s parallel to coal and timber booms. Housing situated near downtown areas has become abandoned, dilapidated and blighted in many cases. The result is a phenomenon of empty homes in need of major rehabilitation and repairs to be up to code that the typical West Virginian cannot afford through conventional means.
Major players from high impact groups, such as the WV Housing Development Fund, the WV Department of Agriculture, the WV Oil and Natural Gas Association and the WV Development Office, to name a few, hosted panel discussions around various topics, including the current landscape and future outlook for West Virginia and how to innovatively meet West Virginia’s housing challenges. These discussions led to break-out sessions divided into four regions throughout the state. Leaders from the various regions brainstormed around assets and opportunities for alignment, as well as recommendations and rapid planning. From these discussions some common themes arose in the arena of housing. No region in West Virginia is exempt from an aging population, job loss, blight issues, lack of decent housing stock or the opioid addiction crises. What we do have are strong foundations to build upon, such as a healthy community college network, plenty of infrastructure in historic buildings for repurposing and tourism as a glue that holds the state together. Collectively, each region elected to take on tasks and bring project ideas back to the WV Housing Conference, which will be hosted in Charleston Sept. 20 – 22. The ideas are meant to be feasible, fundable and implementable in the near future.
The Aligning Summit was meant to bring together a think tank from all over the state to come up with viable solutions to the housing issues facing our state. Local flooding over the past two summers has added another layer of disaster and struggle to an already emerging crises. Despite these setbacks, one of the takeaways from the summit was the resiliency of West Virginians and their sense of community pride. Few places in the nation would be home to such an immediate, neighborly response to natural disaster. Events like these only bring more attention to social issues facing our state to those who can assist in the solutions. With news of potential additional POWER initiative funding through the Appalachian Regional Commission, HUD, the WV Development Office and other sources, some light can be seen at the end of the tunnel. Through collaborative partnerships, regional efforts and pooling of resources, West Virginia can and will prevail over this hurdle to provide housing to those who need it as well as those who see a future in this beautiful state migrating from other places.