BUCKHANNON - The city of Buckhannon's vibrancy serves as a beacon of hope for the state of West Virginia, which still remains at the bottom of every significant economic indicator, the keynote speaker at the Buckhannon-Upshur Chamber of Commerce's annual awards dinner said Thursday.
Rebecca Kimmons is the co-founder of Create West Virginia - a statewide grassroots organization focused on growing sustainable, creative and prosperous economics across the Mountain State.
Kimmons, a Beckley native who is also the publisher of Appalachia Today, said she'd spent time in downtown Buckhannon walking its streets and attending various community meetings, including the weekly Create Buckhannon meeting, which is hosted at CJ Maggie's Restaurant on Thursdays.
Dr. Rigoberto Ramirez accepts the 2013 Citizen of the Year Award for his work with the Buckhannon Rotary Club, the Upshur Parish House and the Literacy Volunteers of Upshur County Thursday evening at the Buckhannon-Upshur Chamber of Commerce’s annual awards dinner. (The Inter-Mountain photo by Katie Kuba)
"I'm just wondering if you know how marvelous you are," Kimmons said at the Chamber dinner, which took place at the French A. See Dining Hall on the campus of West Virginia Wesleyan College. "Do you know how rare you are?"
"I've come to celebrate you tonight and to learn from you and to tell that the amazing work that you're doing here together is being noticed all over the state, and you are sending a very powerful message to West Virginia," Kimmons said. "I believe that this light and this energy that you are kindling here in Buckhannon and Upshur County is going to help us grow the rest of the state to help us reverse this alarming population drain that we are experiencing."
According to an article in the Charleston Gazette, West Virginia lost more than 2,000 people between July 2012 and July 2013 - more people than all other states in the union combined, Kimmons said.
"That's serious," she said. "You've all heard all the other sad facts about West Virginia. We're usually at the top of all the bad lists. We're the most obese people, we're supposedly the least educated, we're the sickest people and the least diverse.
"We are the whitest people in the nation and although some people may think that that's a really good thing, it just happens that the more diverse your culture is, the more innovative it is," she continued.
In "nice, middle-class communities" such as Buckhannon, it's all too easy to forget about the economic struggles of cities such as Richwood, Welch and Weirton, that were once boomtowns, but have since lost the industries that once supported them.
"They affect us, they affect you, and it's their stories that the nation usually hears," Kimmons said. "But I believe that you are creating a can-do model that will be the remedy for what ails us here in West Virginia."
Kimmons considers Buckhannon "an early adopter" of what Create West Virginia views as the five pillars of an innovative economy - diversity, education, entrepreneurship, quality of place and technology. For that reason, she invited Chamber dinner attendees to come to the seventh annual Create West Virginia Conference, which is slated to take place Oct. 25-28 in Glenville.
"(The five pillars) are going to move the needle in West Virginia, just the way you are moving the needle that needs to be moved, so I'm inviting you to come," Kimmons said.
She challenged residents to develop an exhibit showcasing Buckhannon "in a way that's going to capture the attention of someone that's looking for a place to create a life."
At the conference, Create West Virginia is embarking on a social marketing campaign that's targeting young people in Brooklyn, N.Y., Chicago, San Francisco and Portland, Ore.
"We're going to say to the innovators and the young energetic people there that if you're looking for a place to make a future, West Virginia is the place. You can make it here."
To learn more about Create West Virginia or its seventh annual conference, visit createwv.org.
Following Kimmons' speech, Keith Buchanan, past president of the Chamber, served as the emcee for the awards portion of the evening, which began with the presentation of the 2013 Industry of the Year, which went to Mark Carroll, president of Appalachian Forest Products.
Sue Johnson-Phillippe - who happened to be celebrating her birthday on the night of the Chamber dinner - earned the 2013 Business Woman of the Year Award. Johnson-Phillippe is the president and CEO of St. Joseph's Hospital.
Robbie Skinner of Mountain Lakes Insurance garnered the 2013 Business Man of the Year Award, while Jake Anderegg, owner of Anderegg's Jewelers, won the 2013 Small Business of the Year Award.
Dr. Rigoberto Ramirez - who helped organize the first Emergency Medical Service when he moved to Buckhannon in 1965 - was honored with the 2013 Citizen of the Year Award.
Ramirez, an active member of the Buckhannon Rotary Club, has served as the chairman of the board of the Upshur County Literacy Volunteers for more than 13 years, and donates money to the Upshur Parish House and Crosslines on a weekly basis.