Discussion at the Downtown Merchants' meeting on Jan. 26 centered on ways to promote Elkins as "the ideal place" for retirees to come and start a new business or move their business to the area.
Statistics show that more and more people who have spent their working years in large metropolitan areas are looking to move to rural communities where they can enjoy a slower-paced life and still be active in business. Elkins merchants are quantifying these statistics. Many local merchants say that in their dealings with folks from large metro areas - especially the Washington, D.C./Baltimore, Md., areas - are being asked more and more about retirement amenities in Elkins and Randolph County.
Sue Pifer, owner of the Elkins Sewing Center, said she has many customers in the Washington/Baltimore area who have expressed a desire to move to the area or have asked questions about it. Anne Beardslee, owner and operator of Tunnel Mountain Bed and Breakfast, also said that she has had visitors who, during their stay, have expressed an interest in moving to the area permanently. The challenge, then, is finding a way to promote the area, the avenues of getting the word out and to which social and/or business groups the promotional efforts should be directed.
This begs the questions of how much will the campaign cost, who will pay those expenses and can a cost sharing means be devised that involves everyone in the promotion and would likewise benefit all involved. Some efforts are already being employed by the Elkins-Randolph County Chamber of Commerce and The Inter-Mountain newspaper to promote the area in this manner. Each have prepared and stocked information packets that are given or mailed to those requesting such information. This, however, is done on a smaller scale than that envisioned by the merchants.
Some suggested that the area's relatively small population and slow growth potential would present a formidable obstacle to such a program and would surely be a major consideration of anyone thinking about bringing an existing business to or starting a new adventure in the area. This was countered by the suggestion that, while it may be true now, things would change as people move into the area.
Over the past three or four years, Elkins has become quite a tourist destination because of the New West Virginia Central Railroad and its excursion trains and the American Mountain Theater. Most believe that because of this influx of visitors, now is the time to launch this kind of program. The merchants also believe that those who might be interested in bringing this new potential for economic growth to the area are "movers and shakers" in their present-day communities and would bring that vitality with them.
The population growth would be slow, but as more start-up businesses come into existence and active retirees bring their business to the area, the population would begin to increase. It appears that the necessity for doing something now instead of "sometime in the near future" is beginning to permeate the conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom also seems to suggest that regardless of the economic capital of a town's cultural heritage and history, that alone will not sustain a long-term economic future. It must have a strong functioning and tangible economy, too.
Stop for a moment and consider the mean age of our merchants (sorry folks, we can't halt time). It's true, of course, that we have a few young people - by young let's say between the ages of 25 and 35 - who have opened businesses in the last three or four years. How many young people today, though, are thinking about starting a local small business with the intent of making it their life's work? Unfortunately, not many. Take a leisurely stroll through the history books of Elkins and Randolph County and compare the number and ages of those who started businesses back in the 1940s and 1950s - and even the 1960s - to those being started today by our younger generation. That alone should be a wakeup call for immediate action.
It is true that back in the so-called "good ole days" there were an abundance of natural resources industries that helped support fledgling small businesses that aren't available today. Obviously, today's businesses must be built around something else - tourism. I don't think that there are an abundance of opportunities to become a millionaire serving the tourist industry in Elkins and Randolph County, but the opportunities for a comfortable living and enjoyable careers might very well become available once the population begins to increase. To think that one day soon some enterprising mining or wood processing company will come to Elkins and save the day is just plain foolhardiness.
While we have only a few empty storefronts in the heart of town now, it would only take one or two or three more stores to close and we could very well be "pushed over the economic-edge of survival." Some believe that we are very close to that edge right now. While there has to be empty space for businesses, too many of them at a time does not send a message of prosperity to entrepreneurs who might consider Elkins as a business location.
As everyone in the business community knows, Elkins was designated an ON TRAC community last February and committees have been or are in the process of being formed to put the program into action. Whether we like to admit it or not, some fear that there is the all too prevalent attitude of, "Hey, I've got mine; I'm not interested in putting a lot of time, effort and resources into ensuring the economic future of the area."
We only have to look back to Vision 2010 to see the results of the pervasive attitude of "let someone else do it." Those who have agreed to be a part of the ON TRAC program are dedicated to its success. That cannot happen, though, unless every single business gets behind the program and gives all they can to see that it works.
In the four years that I've been covering the Downtown Merchants' meetings they have established an enviable track record. I have no doubt that they are embarking on yet another program that their Randolph County determination and can-do mountaineer spirit will bring to the expected conclusion - success. Why not jump in and throw your efforts behind the project?
Mike Cardinal, commander of the Elkins American Legion, announced at the merchants' meeting that the Marine Corps League will host its annual convention in Elkins on May 6-7. More than 110 members and their families are expected to attend the convention. That's a ways off yet, but on the other hand it gives everyone plenty of time to be prepared for their arrival.
Cardinal also announced that the Legion will celebrate its 91st birthday anniversary on March 19. The celebration is open to the public.
Cardinal also extended his and the Legion's appreciation to everyone who donated food, time and resources to its Christmas food and fruit basket program. He said the Legion distributed 111 Christmas baskets during the holiday season.