Town Hall looks toward community

ELKINS — The latest Town Hall meeting centered on the theme of “Building a Vibrant Community.”

The meeting began with the reading of a statement provided by local businessman Mark Doak, who was unable to attend.

“Improving the appearance of our community is important — but must be done. From 2005 to 2018, the number of Randolph County school-aged children decreased by 1,300 students– 25%,” Doak wrote. “:From 2010 to 2017, a seven-year period, the county population has decreased by 2% while the national population has increased by more than 5%. For the last nine years, college degree adults in Randolph County have remained at a flat 23% of the population while the national percentage of college degree adults has increased from 35% to 39%.”

Doak’s statement went on to say, “Our statistics are appalling and disheartening! Do these statistics make you angry? Unless we take action, the future is bleak.”

He went on to emphasize that there is still hope for the Elkins/Randolph community.

“There is good news– Elkins and Randolph County can be a VIBRANT, growing community– growing jobs, educating youth, retaining and attracting talent, providing safe neighborhoods– a great place to live and the best place for families. Working together we can be VIBRANT! We can shape the future.”

He then referenced Quint Studer’s book “Building a Vibrant Community”, which describes the rebuilding efforts of the Pensacola, Florida community after it had faced post-hurricane economic decline that had lasted for decades.

“Elkins and Randolph County can be a vibrant community. It takes all of us working together to make it happen.”

During the meeting, the results of the Building a Vibrant Community survey that was taken during the April 29 Elkins-Randolph County Chamber of Commerce Annual Banquet were shared with attendees, highlighting key priorities and concerns in the Elkins-Randolph region.

Attracting new businesses to the area topped the list when survey participants were asked to order a list of top priorities for creating a vibrant community.

“A vibrant future requires bringing in new business. The existing businesses recognize the importance of attracting new businesses,” the report included with the survey results states. Another high-scoring priority on the list was the improvement of education.

When asked what they thought the general public would say about Elkins/Randolph County, participants rated the area’s drug problem the highest. “We have to assume that this is top of mind when the community thinks about this area and talks about the area,” explains the report.

According to the results, participants believe that the area economy should be based on tourism, though business followed closely in the opinions of participants under the age of 50, separated by only a tenth of a point. According to the report, “The Under 50 group reflects a tight priority between tourism and business. The Over 50 group reflects a large gap between tourism and business. One view is the Under 50 group may see business as more stable with better pay/benefits than tourism,” says the report.

“Geography/Location and Natural Resources tied for key assets. People appreciate our location and natural resources,” states the report. “For those under 50, Natural Resources was a key asset more than Geography/Location. In other words, they came/stayed in the area because of what the area has — not because of its location.”

Randolph County Commission President Mark Scott said, “There’s a key number that we don’t talk about enough when it comes to economic development, and that’s the workforce participation rate. The workforce participation rate is individuals in working ages, ages 18 through 65, that actually work in a community. That is the key number that a company or a large restaurant chain or anyone else is going to look at. Our workforce participation rate is below 50% in Randolph County; I believe the number is around 47%. That means 47% of everyone ages 18 to 65 actually have gainful employment in Randolph County. That’s the number we have to improve.”

He then added, “We have more job openings currently than we have people to fill them, and that comes back to the education piece and the housing piece. There are a lot of different variables that go into economic development besides just going up and building a factory somewhere and filling it with jobs.”

“This is something that can’t continue. It’s unsustainable when you have 53% of the individuals who are being supported by the 47% workforce,” said Scott.

Additionally, Scott discussed the general effect of a low workplace participation rate on residential areas.

“It affects every one of us. It affects our property values. People who don’t work don’t upkeep their properties by and large,” he said. “I know that’s a stereotype, but it’s generally the case.”

At the meeting, Scott provided attendees with copies of a draft of the county’s new proposed “Unsafe Buildings and Lands Ordinance” which would regulate the “repair, alteration, improvement, vacating, closing, removal or demolition of unsafe or unsanitary structures” county-wide.

According to Scott, the ordinance would not be “overly restrictive,” as it does not adopt any zoning or building permits, nor would it enforce farming restrictions.

“It does create an enforcement committee that will recommend a course of action to fix issues with any properties in the county that are deemed unsafe or distressed or dilapidated,” he said, adding the ordinance would not apply to any municipality that did not invite the enforcement committee to act in the community.

“We assume that because the City of Elkins has enforcement means, that they’re not going to ask the county to come. Beverly also has their own distressed properties ordinance, the International Maintenance Code, so we assume they’re going to do their own.”