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For Farmers, the Impact of Florence Will Linger for Years

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While the storm strikes and when recovery begins, we’ll hear a lot about Hurricane Florence. But the toughest times for the region’s farmers will likely come long after the reporters and TV cameras have gone home. Scott Marlow, a “farm-crisis advocate” who has worked with farmers after 16 previous hurricanes, tells us what to expect and – just as important – when to expect it.

As Hurricane Florence brings flooding to Southeastern states, the Daily Yonder spoke at length with Scott Marlow of Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA (RAFI) to discuss the potential impacts on farmers, rural communities and the environment.

RAFI has launched an education and aid program to assist farmers before, during and after Hurricane Florence. RAFI works primarily in North Carolina and in Southeastern states, but also has national programs. The organization expects the work of hurricane recovery to continue for years to come.

Marlow is a farm policy and rural economic development expert, as well as an experienced one-on-one farm financial crisis advocate. This is the 17th hurricane Marlow has experienced as a disaster recovery worker. Marlow is based in Pittsboro, North Carolina, in the state’s Piedmont region.

The interview is presented here and has been lightly edited for length and clarity. The Daily Yonder’s Bryce Oates recorded the interview.

DY: How are things holding up there for now?

Marlow: It’s OK so far. We’re far enough inland that we just have a windy and cloudy day for now (Thursday, September 13, 2018). At this point, you can tell as much from Weather Channel and media coverage as we can.

DY: Tell me about the efforts that RAFI has going to educate farmers and rural people about what’s coming.

Marlow: One is that we work directly with farmers extensively on disaster recovery. Obviously, if there’s important things to be done in direct response or relief, we’ll help out the best we can. We generally kick in during that transition period from relief to recovery. Our experience with disaster recovery is that there are a set of federal programs that people can get access to, but if they don’t do the right things in the days right after the hurricane, they won’t be eligible. They’ll lose that opportunity.

In the big picture, this hurricane is coming in what was already a very difficult time from the farm financial viability perspective. We run a Farm Advocacy Program where we work with farmers in financial crisis, farmers all levels and scale, from two acres to 20,000 acres and farmers of all sizes in between. It’s row crop farmers, vegetable farmers, there’s chickens and hogs, all kinds of farmers. Part of the story here, as we’re waiting to see what happens with the storm, is that we already have a full caseload of farmers dealing with financial stress because of agriculture prices. For the last year, we’re seeing conventional commodity farms in larger numbers coming to us because they couldn’t get loans, couldn’t cash flow, because of low prices.

“What we know going into this disaster is that the number of farmers who need our help is going to go up very soon.”

We’re one of very few folks across the country who goes to farmers, sits down with them at the kitchen table, go through the shoeboxes of receipts, go through the paperwork and we help them come up with a plan to navigate the circumstances so they can keep owning their farm and their home.

A couple of things about disasters to know. One is that federal disaster programs tend to support large-scale commodity producers more than they support either livestock farms or the direct market and specialty market farmer. A disaster takes all of the resilience of the system. It’s going to tap and max out all of your money and resources. You’re probably not going to have any financial resilience left. Those folks who’ve followed our advice, frankly, the farmers doing direct marketing, adding value, selling specialty products, the farmers that have diversified away from commodity farming, those folks are less likely to have disaster programs that work well for them. And, even if the programs could work for them, this group of farmers is less likely to sign up for them or even know that the assistance programs are there.

In the midst of current price crisis, we came into this situation carrying a very full load. What we know going into this disaster is that the number of farmers who need our help is going to go up very soon. We know that this is going to cause extreme levels of stress across rural communities. We know that in a farm crisis following a disaster, there’s going to be a really significant mental health crisis. Really serious cases of depression, of domestic violence, of substance abuse. We crank up our most in the days when the politicians and the media have left. When we take on a farmer’s case, it is often a two- or three-year commitment from us.

The second level of our work is that we work with partner organizations on the ground out there to build their capacity to serve the farmers in their community. We have a whole series of resources available not just to individual farmers, but also the people that work with farmers, both about the programs that are available and about how to work most effectively with the farming community.

“Disaster programs expect farmers to be at their most organized best at the point where their lives are at their worst.” 

DY: So what has your experience shown you about working with farmers in disaster recovery?

Marlow: In the days after a disaster, whether a farmer is able to keep their farm or lose their farm is often dependent on them navigating very complex and separate state and federal programs that can provide them resources for their recovery. But you have to have two things happen. You have to have the information about available programs, and you have to be really, really organized. Disaster programs expect farmers to be at their most organized best at the point where their lives are at their worst. You’re expecting someone whose house is flooded out, who is trying to find their animals, who’s trying to put their lives together again, and probably whose relatives are in the same situation, you’re expecting them to deliver their tax records for the last several years. You’re expecting them to have a documented farm production history.

There are lots of public information sources about how to make it through the storm itself, and that’s critically important. What we focus on is the things you need to doing just before and during this disaster is to make sure that as you go down the pike you’ll best be positioned to successfully navigate the disaster programs. Often that means determining whether you’ll be farming or not over the next two or three years. The thing we focus the most on is the importance of documentation. We urge people to go out and take pictures just before the hurricane comes in. We push people to take lots of pictures, as many as possible, from all possible angles, documenting the “before” picture of the farm and before the clean-up work happens.

Now, obviously, the storm surge and the winds, they’re very dangerous. But what’s worse in our experience, say with Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Floyd, is the flooding of the rivers and streams afterword. Part of what’s scary about this storm is that it’s going to sit on us and it’s likely to dump huge amounts of water. All of that water has to get back to ocean, and it’s going to flood while it’s on its way back. With Hurricane Matthew, it took six or seven days depending on the location for the rivers to crest. So you’re talking about the worst damage coming a week after the initial storm comes through.

DY: What kind of damage, over the longer-term, do you see during this kind of large-scale flooding?

Marlow: A little bit more on the financial resiliency side. … By working with farmers over the long haul, we know it’s not just that they’re going to have a hard time during the next few months getting rebuilt, just like the other households in the region. Lots of people are going to be having a hard time. Part of what we know is that we’re going to see a real bump in farm foreclosures in around two years. Chances are that immediately following a hurricane, banks and others are going to work with people, they’re going to have sympathy. You’ve just been through a hurricane, so you cut them some slack. There’s a lot of things banks do, and they often do them aggressively, which is great, to help people get through this moment. But once that moment passes, there is nothing left. The hurricane took all of the financial resilience right out of the system. It took their savings, it took their retirement away, if they have them. And instead of making money during that time, they lost money. They lost sales or equipment, maybe animals. They lost stored feed, all of the things it takes to farm.

There are going to be heavy crop losses, and thankfully some of that will be covered with crop insurance. That’s good, but just like health insurance or car insurance, it doesn’t get you all the way back.

DY: And they lost crops, I’m sure. It’s still harvest season in North Carolina, right?

Marlow: It’s underway. A lot of peanuts are still in the field, and if peanuts sit under water for a long time, that’ll be awful. Flooding in these soils is about volume but also about duration. How long are the crops under water? A lot of the cotton is still out there. Most of the soybeans are still in the field. Sweet potatoes are going to be a real issue, depending on the region. There are going to be heavy crop losses, and thankfully some of that will be covered with crop insurance. That’s good, but just like health insurance or car insurance, it doesn’t get you all the way back. And with prices down anyway, the crop insurance payments are going to be lower because the payment is tied to the market price of agricultural commodities.

It’s going to be even tougher for farmers on a smaller scale or who sell on alternative or direct markets instead of a straight commodity price. Unless they’ve done a heck of a job documenting the value of their non-commodity production, the disaster programs are set up to pay based on those mainstream commodity prices. The Livestock Indemnity Program, as an example, pays a set price per animal for losses that the farmer might see. If I’m raising beef calves and selling down at the auction barn, that animal has a very different value than if I’m selling a finished animal, having it processed and selling it by the cut through a direct market. The disaster assistance funds are based on the wholesale commodity price. There’s huge difference, and a much bigger income loss to the direct market farmer.

DY: What about the environmental risks to the region? There are millions of pigs concentrated in the region. There are millions of gallons of sewage out there in the region’s industrial hog operations. There’s been a bit of coverage about this leading up to the storm.

Marlow: Let me explain it in terms of nutrients and nutrient flow. You’ve got this giant output of nutrients from the Midwest and elsewhere that comes to us in the form of grain. That grain flows into places, like Eastern North Carolina and the Delmarva Peninsula, which have a very high concentration of livestock and poultry, of CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). Think of it as a big stream of nutrients flowing into these regions, and those nutrients flow out in the form of meat. Some of those nutrients gets cycled around again, applied as crop fertilizers, but there’s a lot of nutrients that remain. That nutrient flow is very fragile.

Now, a lot of the conversation is going to be about individual farmers. What’s going to happen on individual farms? What are farmers going to do? A farmer (who operates a CAFO) has very little flexibility. They take out very large loans, north of a million dollars, on a facility that is specifically designed by the industry, as well as how the facility will be managed. Remember that 97% of chickens and more than 50% of hogs are owned by the industry. These farmers never even own the animals. But if the animal dies, and how to handle the waste, that’s on the farmer. That’s their responsibility.

I know many individual farmers who do the best they can, who work as hard as they can, who treat their animals with respect. But there’s only so much they control. They can’t control the weather. They can’t control the hurricane. These farmers are part of an industry that says, for the sake of efficiency, you have to put as many animals as possible into these facilities. That relates to the nutrient issue, the loading rate of soils, the carrying capacity of the land.

DY: I’ve been reading about how the industry is preparing for the storm by lowering the lagoon levels. What’s the point of that?

Marlow: It is true that the hog industry learned a lesson in Hurricane Floyd. They applied more of the lagoon waste before Hurricane Matthew, and there was much less damage. But what happens is that hurricanes cause a big disruption to the system. The industry shuts down for a time, shuts down the processing plants (Smithfield has already closed the largest pork processing plant in the world), and what that does is it stops the flow of nutrients out. You’re not shipping and processing animals any more. This overextends the carrying capacity of the system at the same time there’s flooding happening. Those nutrients are primarily nitrogen and phosphorus, but also heavy metals. What a lot of people don’t understand is copper, zinc and arsenic are added as growth regulators in food. So these nutrients and heavy metals are going to go somewhere. Some of that is going to get picked up by plants, some of that is going to flow back to the ocean. Some of it is going to stay in the waterways and land in rural communities.

The problem is, you can’t put the number of animals, the number of hogs and chickens, into Eastern North Carolina and collect all the nutrients. We can talk about the technology applied by individual farms, we can talk about the way individual farmer manage, but we don’t hear enough about how the industry itself and the state encourages the huge concentration of animals in parts of this state. We don’t talk about the ways they fight any limits to those numbers. If I’m an individual farmer, my ability to impact the overall outcome of the flooding is limited.

But the overall impact to the environment and to communities is going to be caused by the aggregated volume of all the farms together, not the individual farmer. The aggregated nutrient load is the problem, and that is at the feet of the industry and state. It’s the choices made by the industry and the state not to allow any limits on their production and to encourage concentration.

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The Evolving Culture of W.Va. River Guides

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Guests of Adventures on the Gorge float down the lower New River. Along with the Gauley River, the New River is one of the top destinations for white water rafting in West Virginia. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Just about any search on Google for “best white water rafting” includes West Virginia. Around 150,000 people commercially raft a West Virginia river each year, mostly on the New River and Gauley River, which are near Fayetteville, West Virginia. At one point there were just less than 30 rafting companies in the area. Today, they have consolidated into six adventure businesses. 

Taking many of the people down the river is a raft guide – someone who is professionally trained to know water, but also to know people. The concept of a river guide in West Virginia started to form in the late 1960s, creating an entire guiding community culture. It is one that has been passed down for decades and is developing more each year.

Every guided raft trip provides guests with a taste of the culture. Especially with experienced guides like Ray Ray, a senior river guide for Adventures on the Gorge – a river guiding outfit in Fayetteville.

It Is In Your Blood, Or It Is Not

On this day, Ray Ray guides eight guests down the lower New River. The water is warm. The canyon surrounding them is tall and covered in thick green trees. Birds are chirping, there is a slight rain drizzle. The arch of the New River Gorge Bridge glimmers in the distance. 

Ray Ray paddles a raft down the lower New River. He has been guiding since 1992. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“It’s the best job in the world. I actually have two college degrees I’ve never used a day in my life,” Ray Ray says.

Roger Wilson, CEO of Adventures on the Gorge, says all the guides have a deep love for the outdoors. 

“There’s something that happens when that first wave hits you. White Water rafting is either in your blood or it’s not. And when that first wave hit me, I was addicted,” Roger says.

He says guiding is not for everyone, as there is a large social aspect. One must be able to read people just as well as one reads the water.

Dave Bassage, who has been guiding since 1984, says there is a close, mutual respect between him and the customer.

“I really love the dynamic of having a crew of different people every day and introducing them to what I think of as the dance with moving water,” Dave says. “We’re just one of its partners, and we’ve got all these other partners in the raft.”

Roger Wilson (left) and Dave Bassage in front of the main Adventures on the Gorge building. Roger started guiding in 1975 and he took Dave on his first raft trip – Dave later started guiding in 1984. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Being a river guide can be a nomadic lifestyle, as the season goes from March until October. Jay Young, media manager for Adventures on the Gorge, says many of the river guides work at ski resorts in the winter or they continue guiding in South America. 

“Those people, everything they own fits in the back of their truck or car and they’re off to the next destination to whatever’s in season,” Jay says.

“Ya’ll Ready?”

The guide leading the boat on this day has made a career out of the industry. Ray Ray has guided in West Virginia since 1992, and he has worked on dozens of other rivers across the world. 

On this trip, there are four other rafts with guides in the group, but Ray Ray is the trip leader. He consistently checks in with the other guides.

“Ya’ll ready? You ready Caveman?” he asks.  

All the river guides have nicknames. One man with shoulder-length blonde hair goes by ‘Caveman.’ He got the name because of where he lived for about eight months — the span of a full rafting season.

“I was looking around through the woods one day and found this cool little rock house overhang and just made it into a house,” Caveman says. “I actually had an endangered species of salamander living with me – it was pretty neat.”

And Ray Ray’s nickname is a bit of a mystery, but Jay has a theory. 

“Ray Ray is Ray Ray because he’s twice the fun,” Jay says.

Ray Ray gives the raft paddling commands. 

“Forward and back, forward and back, don’t use your arms,” he says.

Rafts floating down the lower New River. Today, guides are in almost every commercial raft; however, in the 60s, 70s and 80s that was not as common. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Pubilc Broadcasting

There are long stretches of calm, scenic floating. Ray Ray explains the history of the area, and he tells stories, like how different rapids and obstacles in the river got their names. There is Greyhound, Flea Flicker, Meat Grinder, Old Nasty and Miller’s Foley. 

“A kayaker named Miller got stuffed up underneath that rock over there. He was trying to run a real gnarly line, but he swam out alive, which was a million to one shot,” Ray Ray says. “He needed to go buy himself a lottery ticket.”

Ray Ray’s skin seems to be permanently tan. The fine lines on his face are of a person who has worked outside all of their life. When he sits on the back of the raft, paddle in hand, he is in his element. 

Mostly he jokes in a playful voice with the guests.

“Remember I told you if I don’t bring you back they’re gonna dock my pay. So, you better make your swim,” he says.

But in serious moments, Ray Ray exudes confidence. His voice booms, his commands are clear. 

Danger Lurks 

In the rapid sections of the river, the raft pushes itself through the raging white water. Everyone gets soaked, but Ray Ray guides the entire time.

“Forward go – go! Keep going guys,” he says.

Some of the guests scream from a mix of fear and excitement.

After the rapids, Ray Ray pauses to check on the other rafts in the group.

We’re approaching an obstacle called ‘Meat Grinder.’ 

“It’s a collection of undercut rocks where water goes under and through it,” Ray Ray says. “We say water goes through and bodies do not.”

Some people are thrown out of their raft in the rapid above Meat Grinder. They are not part of Ray Ray’s group, but he immediately springs into action. The possibility of something catastrophic happening is low, but ‘Meat Grinder’ is one of the more dangerous areas on the river.

The guides react quickly, and Ray Ray shouts to the people bobbing in the white water, trying to save their raft.

“Leave the boat. Swim – swim!”

Everybody is fine, but it is because Ray Ray and the other guides on the trip are experts on reading the water and reading each other. Something Jay Young, the media manager for Adventures on the Gorge, says is just part of being a professional guide.

“If you were to hang out at the guide camp or even a bar on a Saturday night, you wouldn’t think these guys are the professionals that they are,” Jay says. “But when the poo hits the fan on a river, there’s nobody else I’d want out with me, because they rush into action; they all know exactly what to do, and it gets done fast.”

Passing the Paddle Down

Guides have always had their own language, whether it is hand signals on the river, or talking about water depth or names of rapids. Ray Ray says it has evolved over time. 

“We’re gonna be running one down here called ‘Flea Flicker’ that a lot of old-timers used to call ‘Last Kick in the Pants,’” he says. “For the most part over time, it’s evolved and it’s just a way for us to communicate, it’s our language. It’s like speaking river guide or speaking hippy.”

Guests that were a part of Ray Ray’s group. There are typically eight people to a raft. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcast

And it is the senior guides, like Ray Ray, that teach this new language to the up and coming guides. People who might not have prior rafting experience but are brought together through their love of the outdoors. 

Claire Hemme, a former Inside Appalachia intern, is a first-year river guide. She took the job because she wanted to be paid to work outside.

“It’s just this wonderful eclectic mix of everyone from everywhere who just want to be outside,” she says.

The Glory Days

River guides have always been adventure-seeking people, says Roger Wilson, the Adventures on the Gorge CEO. He started guiding in 1975, and he says the concept of the commercial rafting industry was still new.

“Every rock wasn’t named, every route wasn’t ran. There was still that point of discovery,” Roger says. “We were developing an industry – developing something new that no one had ever done before.”

Today, safety is a top priority. Before getting on the river, everyone signs a waiver, and guides ask each person about specific health issues.

But that was not always the case. Charlie Walbridge guided on the Cheat River in northern West Virginia from the late 1970s until the early 1980s. He says there was not a guide in every raft, people did not sign a waiver and guests were often treated like friends rather than a paying customer.

“If somebody fell out of the boat, we’d certainly go help them, but we’d laugh at them,” Charlie says. “There were all kinds of slang. When I first started the guests were turkeys, and then carp and then geeks.”

Charlie Walbridge with his kayak at his home in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia. After trying out for the U.S. whitewater rafting team in 1975, Charlie started guiding on the Cheat River. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

These days, guides are almost always in every raft, and there is more respect between the guide and customer. Roger says guiding has become a way to share the love of the sport. 

“It evolves to watching these new guests hit these rapids for the first time and watching the smile on their face,” Roger says.

Don’t Watch Life Go By 

Back on the New River, in the raft with Ray Ray, the trip is almost over.  

For most of the guests in the boat, it is their first time down the rapids, but Ray Ray has done it thousands of times. He will be out again the next day, likely guiding more guests down the same rapids, but he still has a big grin and excitement for the river. 

Guests on the bus after four hours of rafting. Buses transport guides and guests to and from the river. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“Thanks ya’ll very much,” he says. “Ya’ll played super hard today. I told you that was going to be a fun ride today – that was a rowdy ride.”

On shore, all the rafts are deflated and loaded on a trailer.

All 32 people in the group load up on a bus, where cold beer and soft drinks are waiting. Ray Ray has one last message.

“Guys, keep getting off your couch and living your life. Don’t watch this go by.”

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting and is part of a recent Inside Appalachia episode exploring some of Appalachia’s most unique destinations, on the water and beneath the water. 

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Thomas, W.Va.: The Town the Arts (Re) Built

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The Purple Fiddle. Photo: Purple Fiddle Facebook page

The downtown of this town of 600 sat nearly vacant until a music venue and artists began to create a new economic future for the former coal town. A new guide from the National Association of Governors says arts and culture can be part of rebuilding economies in rural communities.

The city of 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 town in eastern West Virginia 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.

“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.”

A staircase mural created by high school students in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, for the town’s May Festival of the Arts. Eureka Springs is one of the rural communities profiled in a new National Governors Association guide on arts and economic development. Photo: Eureka Springs City Advertising and Promotion Commission for the National Governor’s Association Rural Arts Report

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

“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.

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 things up, said Wilson-Hauger.

“The artists formed a volunteer non-profit 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.

“In more recent years, we’ve been able to provide direct technical assistance to some of those building owners to help with their pre-development 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 (WCL) 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, non-profit groups and other institutions.”

The local efforts have also been spurred with 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 a lot of 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 that runs past downtown Thomas has been converted into a biking and walking trail.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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Telling the Story of Small-town America, without Donald Trump

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Photo: David Bernabo

When two Minnesota writers busted a star reporter for German magazine Der Spiegel for skewering their town with fabrications, it affirmed the worst stereotypes about condescending city journalists wading into the heartland.

But you don’t have to make stuff up to worry about how your reporting on small-town America is going to be received. Since the 2016 election, the tension on main street between storyteller and subject has polluted public discourse and trust during a difficult and vulnerable time. Getting the story exactly right is always hard.

That’s why I was so nervous a few Fridays ago, when filmmaker Dave Bernabo and I drove 75 minutes southwest of Pittsburgh, to Moundsville, W.Va., for the premiere of our feature documentary about the town.

The movie, which is available online, will debut in New York on Jan. 14 and in Pittsburgh at the Carnegie Museum of Art on Jan. 17. But the Moundsville performance was the one I was nervous about. For the first time in my two-decade career in journalism, on publication day, I would be facing my sources.

Small town

Dave and I were two city intellectuals, blue dots floating into a red town, and we’d committed to answering questions from the audience after the movie.

Our goal with “Moundsville” was to tell the economic biography of a classic American small town— a place out of a Jimmy Stewart movie — and show how it had changed and how it was coping, in a way that illustrated this moment in American history.

Moundsville, pop. 8,494, was the perfect fit. Its industrial boom included dozens of factories, including the Marx toy plant, which made the Rock’em Sock’em robots. Now it enjoyed a typical service economy, anchored around a Walmart, a hospital and a prison. And in the middle was the Grave Creek Mound, a prehistoric burial site left behind by hunter-gatherers who roamed Appalachia thousands of years ago, and a sure mark of time’s insistence on change.

Moundsville is the seat of a county that had voted 73.1 percent for Donald Trump in 2016, compared to 22.1 percent for Hillary Clinton, so, yes, maybe we’d reveal something deeper about the Trump phenomenon, but that wasn’t the primary goal.

Instead, we wanted mainly to tell the truth about the past, present and future of an iconic small town in a way that avoided nationalist nostalgia or liberal condescension. By focusing on shared history, without getting distracted by Washington politics, we’d show that Americans can still have common reality-based narratives that lay the groundwork for healthier debate.

We spent almost a year reporting, filming and editing. The approach we developed was to select the most thoughtful residents we could find, and let them tell the story. Our characters included a waiter, an archeologist, a paranormal collector, a toy historian and the poet laureate of West Virginia.

When we asked about politics, the answers were almost always clichés, copied and pasted from cable news. We made a decision: No Trump.

When we finished in November, we got an offer from Phil Remke, one of the main characters in the movie, and now the mayor of Moundsville: How about premiering at the Strand, that boxy red-brick theatre at the end of Moundsville’s main street, Jefferson Avenue?

The Strand opened in 1920 and seats 400. When Moundsville flourished, it hosted traveling plays and vaudeville acts. These days, it welcomes everything from bluegrass concerts and musicals for kids to The Rocky Horror Picture Show and stand-up comedy. It also hosts birthday parties and dance recitals.

We booked a Friday night and set ticket prices at $5, and then worried if anybody would show up.

Fulfilling the code

Media coverage of post-industrial towns tends to focus on economic poverty. This plant closed. This number of jobs were lost. Less discussed is the loss of culture. Factories with good jobs attract educated people with disposable income. An economy based on service jobs at the Walmart, the prison and the hospital offers less of a base to support theaters, museums and bookstores. “People have less money to spend, and it’s mostly older people,” Sadie Crowe, the young part-time general manager of the Strand, told me.

As soon as I got to the Strand on opening night, an hour before the show, I knew we’d be OK. There was a line.

We sold 146 tickets, mostly to people in their 50s and older. The box office tally “blows any other movie we’ve had this year out of the water,” Ms. Crowe told me later.

John W. Miller, a Pittsburgh-based writer and former Wall Street Journal reporter (pictured), has made a feature documentary about the town of Moundsville, W.Va. with Pittsburgh filmmaker David Bernabo. Photo: Matt McDermit/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The audience went quiet with concentration when the movie started. We got some laughs.

Then came a scene where a young Latino man talks about “racism in Moundsville.” A hush. Later, there was another conspicuous silence when Bill Wnek, a retired teacher, blames plant closures on capitalism. Local factories are bound to close “if you can get it cheaper somewhere else,” he says.

I was worried when the lights went up and it was time for the Q&A.

Suzanne Park, the director of the shuttered West Virginia State Penitentiary, now a tourist attraction, took the microphone. “Thank you for not making this political,” she said. “We didn’t know if we could trust you, because, you know, big-city journalists,” she said. “But you were balanced, and we appreciate that.” Others raised their hand. They had all liked the movie.

After the premiere, I discovered that we had fulfilled a code developed by some anthropologists. Presenting a finished work to the subject “is about respect, but it’s also about interaction, collaboration and growth,” University of Pittsburgh anthropologist Loukas Barton told me.

For example, native communities that Mr. Barton has studied in Alaska “have used my work in negotiations with other landowners,” he said. “Self-knowledge can give a community political power.” There’s a long history of outsiders “using and abusing the history of a place for their own purposes, and you’d don’t want to do that,” he said.

Shared history

I called a handful of locals for more conversation.

Like Ms. Park, others thanked me for not making the movie about Mr. Trump. It didn’t bother them that we had presented Moundsville’s decline, as well as problems with the gas industry and Walmart. They know things are hard; they just don’t like being lectured to, they explained.

“We all have opinions about politics and history will judge,” said Rose Hart, founder of a charity called Appalachian Outreach. “But both parties are so dysfunctional it’s better to stick to reality.”

By offering a shared history, the movie “makes it easier for us to talk about how to improve the town,” said Steve Hummel, a collector of haunted objects.

Gene Saunders, the town’s first and only African-American mayor, has a key role in the movie, explaining the discrimination he grew up with in the 1950s. “A lot of people here didn’t know Moundsville was segregated,” he said. “Your movie told them.”

Mary Britt moved to Moundsville six years ago to accompany her husband, who got a job at the local hospital. “I just liked learning more about the town,” she said. “You told a lot of stories that even people here don’t know.”

And she, too, thanked us, for avoiding the T word.

“I bet 90 percent percent of the people at the premiere voted for him,” said Ms. Britt. “But they don’t want an outsider telling them about it.”

A few weeks after the premiere, Ms. Crowe, the Strand’s manager, emailed to say people in town liked the movie so much that the theater will screen it twice more, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m on Jan. 19.

And on Facebook, one town resident declared she was downloading “Moundsville” — as a Christmas gift.

This story was originally published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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