Reconnecting McDowell project looks to create 'teacher village'
May 17, 2012 ·
Members of the Reconnecting McDowell Project, the public-private partnership working to revitalize McDowell County, believe creating more housing options will help in attracting teachers to the area.
"Ok this is the bottom floor; you’ve got 5,000 square feet per floor," Vira Rose grabs a coal miner’s helmet with the light attached to shine the way down the basement steps. She owns this 25,000 square feet building, the former Best Furniture building on Wyoming Street in Welch.
"You know I was a coal miner for 37 years," she said.
Rose grew up in War, the tip of McDowell county and the southernmost city in the state. You can see the pride in Rose’s face as she leads county officials and Reconnecting McDowell members on a tour.
“Look at the structure," Rose says as she points to a steal beam in the basement. "This is great! I’m a carpenter bum myself, licensed in demolition, excavation, residential, commercial.”
The man with the checkbook is Bob Brown, senior officer with the American Federation of Teachers, the lead coordinator of the Reconnecting McDowell project.
“One of the big issues we’re dealing with in the educational system is our inability to attract teachers to come and work in McDowell county," Brown explained. "Not because there are not idealistic young people who don’t want to come here and work the issue is that when they come here we can’t find housing. So we’re trying to find a way to rectify that problem."
Rose owns several properties in town, but selling this building would bring her closer to her dream. She pauses outside the building as coal trucks whiz by, to explain.
“That would give me the money to go ahead and build my Hatfield and McCoy cabins and get my bed and breakfast going on the other end; which would put about 40 to 50 people to work," she said.
According to the US Census, the number of housing units in McDowell is close to 14,000, with about 77 percent claiming ownership. The median house value of is little more than $30,000.
Several buildings sit vacant. Some communities don’t have running water in homes or access to sewage systems.
“They always want to talk about the bad," Rose said. "Let’s give people work and my idea is you work a man, and he can go home and set down at the head of the table with his family. His wife is there his kids is there and they say 'look what Dad, Dad brought food home.'"
"Instill that back. Put the family unit back together. When we put the work going and put the family back together, it’s going to take care of everything.”
“We’ve got to work together to give the people the jobs, and the teachers, help them and help others and then help the old folks. I pray every night for God to show me some body to help the next day and I do.”
Brown acknowledges that there are some rental properties available in the area, but he says the homes are not what today’s youth are accustomed to.
“There are a lot of young idealistic teachers who would love to come here and work," Brown explained, "but I don’t think they’re going to come here and work if they’re isolated in an apartment out by itself or a house out on top of the mountain or a trailer down there, that’s you know half a mile from the nearest neighbor."
"I think they’re looking for this social world that they’re used to in college.”
Brown and the Reconnecting McDowell Project envisions a building that creates a social atmosphere for young teachers.
“There’s a lot of old vacant buildings structurally sound in Welch and surrounding communities," he said. "We’d like to find one and create once again what we’re calling a teacher village where we can create lofts or apartments."
"Have a common area a space where people can socialize and maybe have a rec room maybe have a computer lab. We think that’s one thing we can do to maybe help attract and retain quality teachers in McDowell County.”
Brown says Reconnecting McDowell recently filed for non-profit, foundation status. He says the group is considering subsidizing the rent as an incentive for teachers, if not; he says, the rental income will go back into the foundation to continue revitalization efforts in the county.
“So how much is this building for sale for today," Brown asks at the end of the tour. "Eighty," Rose replies. "It’s nice."
Brown toured several buildings in Welch earlier this week. He says the foundation will make a decision, and promises to purchase a building soon.