Now that the hobnobbing and glad-handing is over, all one can do is sit back and nervously await the ONTRAC assessment team's evaluation. I've been wanting to ask but have been afraid to until now, is it possible that we could have flunked the test? I don't think so. Watching and listening to the interviewers gave no clues, though - their expressions revealed no hint - they asked questions and digested the answers. If the enthusiasm of those who sat before the inquisitors is part of the success formula, Elkins will have passed with excellence.
I had the privilege of attending the introduction session on Monday morning and the reception that evening. I thought both were exceptionally well attended. Those that spoke at the reception provided an eloquent portrayal of Elkins and cemented for all time their dedication to a future of achievement and a quality of life rivaled by none other. A good cross section of the business, education, health care and services industry was present creating what was surely a significant positive effect for the assessment team.
President Ed Griesel called a special meeting of the Downtown Merchants Association, giving the assessment team an opportunity to meet many of those who will be taking part in the program and otherwise would not have had an opportunity to do so. Nearly 20 business owners made a special effort to be there to show their support for the program.
West Virginia ONTRAC Coordinator Delphine Coffey said of the importance of small businesses in the state, "Seventy-six percent of the people in West Virginia who draw a regular paycheck work for businesses that have 10 people on the payroll. Fifty percent work for businesses with only four people on the pay roll. There are 36,000 small businesses in West Virginia; if we could help these business owners become able to hire one more full-time employee, look what that would do for the economy. If these businesses could hire one part-time employee," she said, "that would amount to some 18,000 new hires. That's point one," Coffey continued. "Point two is that ONTRAC is designed to help revitalize a community's downtown area through the four-point program of organization, promotion, design and economic restructuring. Our goal is to help communities visualize their needs and provide guidance that will help them implement a program that will accomplish their goal."
Briefly stated, ONTRAC was created in West Virginia by the governor's office and the West Virginia Development Office to assist communities in their efforts to boost economic and community growth.
Will it be easy to accomplish these goals? No it won't. Does the program have hurdles? Absolutely. Is there a possibility of failure? Of course there is. It could simply fade away, like a recent program, into inactivity. What will it take to succeed? Hard work, commitment and willingness to compromise for the benefit of the whole. Who will benefit from a successful program? Everyone. The benefits of restoring and revitalizing communities provide a sense of pride and commitment in neighborhoods and empower the people, businesses and organizations to achieve ongoing transformation.
Here are some of those hurdles as pointed out on the ONTRAC/Main Street Web site. There are no magic bullets, formulae, big fix answers nor easy solutions. The program cannot save the participants from hard work, but it can substantially improve the chances for success. There are no handouts. Most traditional government and foundation grants shun projects that involve commercial enterprises. (I talked to Griesel about the possibility of funding grants. He said there "is little possibility for these kinds of grants, but once, and if, we progress into the Main Street Program, funding grants might be a possibility." Notice, he said might be available. "However," he said, "there is no guarantee.")
The days of urban renewal's big-fix projects are gone. Most resources are local. Whether you need people or money to make projects happen, they are most likely to be found in the community and the community must find them.
Not everyone will like the project or those that lead it. Coalitions that have never been formed will have to be forged and many people involved may not be used to working with each other. Everyone has an agenda and it is probably not just commercial district revitalization. The leaders must create the culture and the priority. Some change will be needed. Most traditional commercial districts will never again be able to provide the range of goods and services they offered decades ago. (I do not totally agree with this statement. The citizens of today have different needs than those of two or three decades ago. Our economy of those days was based on industries that were non-renewable mineral extraction or timber, for example, which takes nearly a century to replenish itself. What must be developed today are those industries that are available to us now such as tourism, education, health care and hospitality and leisure.)
Change will be needed; it won't happen overnight - it's a gradual process. Commercial centers don't lose their viability overnight; it can't be regained overnight either. Now here's the kicker: Everyone is as qualified as everyone else to make it happen. Thousands of concerned citizens and business owners everywhere make a difference in revitalizing their downtown and commercial districts just by stepping up to help, regardless of experience or background. Finally, but certainly not least, is the fact that the process is never finished. Traditional commercial districts like shopping centers and industrial parks require full-time, professional management.
Those who oppose the program will justify their opposition by saying that downtown Elkins is still a vibrant business community and is economically sound. In large part, that is true. Communities, however, cannot and do not sustain themselves with the status quo. There has to be growth and change - and that's exactly what the ONTRAC and Main Street programs are designed to accomplish. It behooves everyone who does not understand the principals and goals of this program to educate themselves.
The ONTRAC program is new to West Virginia. It came into being on Feb. 18 when Gov. Joe Manchin announced the first 13 communities selected to participate. For those who might not know, the ONTRAC program was introduced as a primer, so to speak, for the Main Street Program. If, after two years, the community meets eligibility criteria, it can apply for admission into the Main Street Program, which has been in existence for quite some time.
As best I can determine there are 13 communities in the state that are participating in Main Street including Morgantown, which will act as a mentor for the leaders of the Elkins ONTRAC Program. A community does not have to apply for Main Street, but that would seem the only logical step after spending two years preparing for acceptance. Neither does a community have to apply for the Main Street Program immediately after completion of the initial two-year program - it may delay the application for awhile. However, I don't know what that time limit is.
There has been so much accomplished in the last two or three years toward bringing Elkins back to being the commercial hub of northcentral West Virginia that it once was. We keep hearing so much about the American Mountain Theater and the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad and what they've done for our community. Every compliment, every accolade they receive is justified. But the little mom-and-pop shops are not to be forgotten. They have sustained the community since the railroad, timber and mining industries were no longer the major sustainers of the economy. They deserve credit for "sticking it out" hoping for a better and brighter tomorrow. I believe that better tomorrow is now, but they will have to be a part of the ONTRAC program too. It will take, as said earlier, the hard work, cooperation and compromises of everyone to make it work.