Featured, Government, News

More Than a Building: Renaissance Village Aims to Symbolize Hope for McDowell County

By Derek Tyson, The Welch News Editor

WELCH, WV – A large crowd gathered in Welch this morning to celebrate groundbreaking of Reconnecting McDowell’s Renaissance Village. 

“Good things don’t happen because of one person, good things happen when many people come together and say ‘We are going to work to make this happen,’” said former First Lady Gayle Manchin. 

Gayle Manchin and Randi Weingarten spoke at the Renaissance Village groundbreaking ceremony.
(Photo by Derek Tyson)

All McDowell County residents, representatives on the State level as well as visitors from across the country were honored at the event. 

“From when this started as a dream, the idea has always been to recruit teachers and retain them,” said Manchin. “A lot of people have come to McDowell County with a promise or a grant.” 

Manchin spoke about how often those promises and grants came up short for people in the area. 

“We weren’t here for the short haul, not the first month. We’re here for the last month,” said Manchin. “Today we are witnessing the beginning of this beautiful complex, the Renaissance Village.”

President of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten was also present at the ceremony. 

“I’ve seen the pictures of downtown Welch in the 50s and 60s, with the streets packed and stores everywhere,” said Weingarten. “This building is the greenest of green shoots. The tide is turning in this County.”

Weingarten was proud to announce academic statistics showing improvement in many areas in the McDowell County school system, as follows: 

• The four-year high school graduation rate has increased steadily from 74 percent in 2010-11 to 92 percent in 2017-18.

• The high school dropout rate has decreased from 4.5 percent in 2010-11 to less than 1 percent in 2017-18.

• The number of McDowell high school graduates enrolling in college has increased from 24.6 percent in 2010-11 to 40.3 percent in 2015-16. Virtually every student in the Broader Horizons mentoring program has enrolled in college.

• Across all grade levels, student proficiency in math has increased slightly, from about 15 percent in 2014-15 to 23 percent in 2017-18.

• A smaller proportion of students are performing at the lowest level of the math assessment. In 2014-15, about 58 percent of students performed at Level 1, the lowest level. In 2017-18, that percentage dropped by 10 points to about 48 percent.

• A greater percentage of students are performing at Level 4, the highest level, on both the mathematics and reading assessments.

• After a 12-year state takeover due to chronically low student achievement, the state returned the McDowell County Public Schools to local control in 2013.

Social and emotional needs:

• Every student has access to medical and dental services.  

• All county schools but one elementary school offer mental health services.

• Two schools have been converted to community schools that provide wraparound services to support children and their families. The goal is for all schools to have wraparound services serving academic, health and social service needs. 

• A county Juvenile Drug Court diverts nonviolent young offenders from the traditional juvenile court process and long sentences to intensive drug treatment programs that help return students to school faster.

Economic development:

• Foundations and corporations have provided college scholarships, expansion of broadband for high-speed internet service in every school and community, free laptops, and tens of thousands of books.

• The Hatfield-McCoy Trail System has been expanded for all-terrain vehicles, dirt bikes and utility vehicles in an effort to broaden tourism in the county.

“All Americans want good jobs, where they can live on one job. Affordable healthcare, a secure retirement, affordable college, great public schools, a healthy Democracy and justice for all,” said Weingarten. “These are bedrock values of our communities whether you live in New York or Welch, West Virginia.”

According to Weingarten, the work of Reconnecting McDowell is driven by the need to make sure this happens regardless of demography or geography. 

“Small towns need these investments in roads, in bridges, in schools. They need to keep their post offices, their cafes, their grocery stores so that Main Street can thrive again and they can’t be subject to the vicissitudes of a corporation coming or leaving,” said Weingarten. “That’s the hope, the dream of the Renaissance Village. We want to help revive small towns so they can thrive with the American Dream. That is the work of Reconnecting McDowell.”

City of Welch Mayor Harold McBride said it was an extremely great day in Welch as he began. 

“But before I begin, there was no stronger advocate for this than former Mayor Reba Honaker. I’d personally like to thank her for that, and her family. I’m sure she’s smiling on us today,” said McBride. 

McBride touted the benefits on teachers being a part of the community their students live in. 

“If a teacher lives in the City of Welch, she sees little Johnny out here of the nighttime. She understands what little Johnny is going through and puts through a little extra to nourish little Johnny,” said McBride. “He goes on, gets an education and goes out into the world to do great. You cannot put a money figure on that. But if she doesn’t live here, she’ll never see that.”

‘These folks that made this happen, this building is not going to make any difference in their life. What they’re going to get out of this, tonight, when they lay down to go to bed, they’re going to have a real warm feeling and a smile on their face. Because they know they have made a difference in someone else’s life. The greatest thing a human can do is make a positive difference in someone else’s life.”

Gayle Manchin spoke about the Broader Horizons program, where she first met local resident and now teacher Emily Hicks.  

“I gave them a presentation on meeting people. Everybody they met at Charleston, they should go up, shake hands, look them straight in the eye and tell them they’re from McDowell County, West Virginia,” said Manchin. “Emily Hicks did it probably better than any other student.”

While still a student, Hicks was determined to go to college and return home to teach future generations of McDowell County residents. 

I had the opportunity to speak to her graduating class as one of my last duties as a member of the State Board of Education. 

“I see an energy and a fire in our young people that will make a difference in this area,” said Manchin. “Because of Emily, I am so proud to introduce one of our first ambassadors from the Broader Horizons program, Ms. Emily Hicks.”

Hicks spoke about the hope the building symbolized for the local community. 

“This building is not just another building in Welch. It means hope, hope for community, hope for scholarships, hope for everything,” said Hicks. “If one little thing comes, maybe more can come. If one little thing happens, maybe bigger things can happen. If teachers are closer, there can be more after school programs, more people around.”

Renaissance Village will be the first multistory construction in Welch in more than 50 years, comprising 16 apartments on two floors alongside two additional floors of retail and commercial space. The building will make modern housing more accessible to McDowell educators and other professionals, many of whom drive long distances to get to work.

“If you live an hour to two away, it’s so hard to be a part of anything after school. It’s so hard to go on these trips, have experience with our kids,” said Hicks. “This is a way for everybody to come together. You have to have somebody who cares and if they’re closer to you, they have a greater opportunity to care.”

Hicks called on everyone in attendance to not resist change in our area, but to embrace it. 

“Just because something is coming into Welch, people don’t need to down it like normal. People need to embrace it, to embrace change. We need to quit seeing businesses closing, we need to see more things opening and more things happening,” said Hicks. “We may never have what we once had, but we could have a part of it. This is not just a building, it is a piece of our hope.”