Two towns make a community: How collaboration unlocks new possibilities

Greg Ingram, Mayor of Montgomery

BY JENNY TOTTEN, COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR, THE HUB

When the backbone of a community suffers, it takes creative thought and a willingness to take a risk on innovative approaches to keep moving forward. The two municipalities of Montgomery and Smithers in Eastern Kanawha and Fayette Counties have confronted this issue head-on by working together to achieve a greater sense of community. The neighboring communities, separated only by the Kanawha River, realized the need to work together as their economies were declining. Each of the towns’ residents frequently cross the river to work, shop, and go to school, so the towns’ representatives realized collaboration is key. The Hub hosted Dr. Anne Cavalier, Mayor of Smithers, Greg Ingram, Mayor of Montgomery, and Beth Fish, a business owner in Smithers, during our most recent Community Conversation to hear about the Strategic Initiatives Council and its work in revitalizing these two towns.

Dr. Anne Cavalier, Mayor of Smithers

To frame this conversation, Mayor Ingram shared a brief history of the struggle of the two municipalities, which began when the WV Turnpike was built to pass around, instead of through, the communities in the 1990s. More recently, Montgomery-Fayette High School closed in Smithers, and WVU Tech moved its operations from Montgomery to Beckley, taking nearly 2,500 students and 350 employees with it. As a result, both mayors saw businesses leave and budgets decline.  

The two mayors, along with business owners and other representatives from both communities, came together to create the Upper Kanawha Valley Strategic Initiatives Council. This group’s main purpose is to find ways for the two communities, and the entire Upper Kanawha Valley, to intentionally work together, share resources, and build a stronger region. All of this work was not easy, and our three guests shared the following five secrets to success for working together.

Over 50 community changemakers attended the March Community Conversation!

Start small.

The two communities initially started by sharing a single sanitation worker position.  This early win has blossomed into including other shared opportunities such as code enforcement, equipment, and participation in community development programs such as Cultivate WV.  

Cooperate on projects.

If two communities or groups are working together towards a common goal that creates visible change, such as a beautification or a community garden project, then the entirety of both communities will feel accomplished and be more likely to engage again.  

Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Forming the Strategic Initiatives Council into a formal legal entity created a stir with the Secretary of State’s office as it had never been done before.  The two communities and their leadership teams remained patient and kept asking the right questions until the organizational structure was created.  

Tear down silos.

It is important to understand that communities are stronger together and that doing what is best for an entire region benefits all of the communities in that region. Dr. Cavalier and Mayor Ingram both have these best interests in mind and regularly recommend resources to each other as well as other communities.  

Share your story.

Dr. Cavalier shared the importance of sharing what is going on as it happens and not just the pretty pictures at the end of a project.  By letting the entire community see these processes, it creates trust and community buy-in. 

Montgomery and Smithers are both part of the WV Hub’s Cultivate WV program this year and are receiving coaching support, technical assistance, and mini-grant support for community projects. They just finished submitting their mini-grant applications, and we’ll announce the awardees in the coming weeks. Follow along as they learn to build stronger teams, engage others, and create a better future for the Upper Kanawha Valley. 

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