On July 2, 2021, residents gathered on a sunny evening outside the Smithers Gateway Center for the monthly First Fridays Farmers Market. This market regularly draws vendors and shoppers from throughout Kanawha and Fayette counties, and even more-so on that day. It was the start of the July Fourth weekend and the unveiling of the community’s new Urban Walking Trail. Mayor Anne Cavalier of Smithers and Mayor Greg Ingram of Montgomery chatted with community members before presenting the new trail to the residents. A small crowd formed around the newly installed sign for the walking trail, wrapped up and covered with a large red bow.
The walking trail is the latest in a series of community-driven, collaborative projects that are making Montgomery and Smithers vibrant places to live, work, and play.
Located in the Upper Kanawha Valley region of West Virginia, the “sister cities” of Montgomery and Smithers, have a combined population of 2,696. These communities, separated only by the Kanawha River, are just 25 miles from the New River Gorge Bridge and home of the country’s newest National Park. Many travelers take Rt. 60 directly from Charleston to Fayetteville, passing right through this community along the way.
“We know that the future of this area has a lot to do with tourism, and we know where we sit geographically. We’re in a sweet spot,” said Mayor Cavalier. Community leaders and volunteers are looking to provide tourists with more reasons to stop and enjoy the assets that both Montgomery and Smithers have to offer. The monthly farmers market, a new event established by a community volunteer team, is just one of these assets. With the addition of the market, walking trail, murals, signage, and more small and large-scale improvement projects, all efforts led by the community, these two towns are working to make their area more visitor-friendly.
West Virginia communities of all sizes are engaging in innovative and proactive community building work. Many of these communities exemplify our Rural Community Building Best Practices, guideposts identified through evidence-based research processes. By looking to these communities as models, we can work together to replicate small wins and major successes.
Many of the community’s projects are driven by volunteers as well as a leadership group known as the Upper Kanawha Valley Strategic Initiative Council, a collaborative council that enables the two towns to partner formally on projects that benefit both areas. The Strategic Initiative Council is an ideal model that opens up new opportunities for communities that are geographically close to one another.
While Montgomery and Smithers are two municipalities, they are able to function as one community through their cooperative agreement. The Strategic Initiative Council is focused on making positive change by sharing ideas, collaborating on cross-community programs, and even sharing funds and resources to advance goals that are mutually beneficial to both towns.
Through this collaborative council, the two towns are able to bring diverse voices to the table when making decisions that impact the entire community. In addition to the mayors of each town, the council includes a councilperson and business owner from both Montgomery and Smithers as well as shared legal counsel. Community members are welcomed to attend Strategic Initiative Council meetings.
As the residents collaboratively identified tourism as a cornerstone opportunity in building their economies, they recognized that focusing on support for small businesses would be a lynchpin in ensuring that they have a strong foundation for their towns to grow.
Small businesses became a crucial part of the strategies created by the Strategic Initiative Council, and the voices of business owners from both communities as a part of the council were a critical piece of actualizing their ideas. “We knew, almost organically, that we not only needed elected leadership, we needed the business community involved. If we were going to grow the communities, if we were going to build the economic base of these communities, we had to hear from the business people,” said Mayor Cavalier.
Though their collaborations have already seen great success, the members of the Strategic Initiative Council have a common vision to grow and sustain their work, and the trust and relationships are established to help them be successful in their efforts. “We have a vision of bigger things for the Strategic Initiative Council, and it’s going to be the vehicle that someday will really help these two communities collaborate and save a lot of money.”
The success of the Strategic Initiative Council hinges on the ability of the representatives from both communities to identify common challenges and generate solutions to address them. The two towns regularly share resources, like equipment and even employees, to save the towns, and ultimately, residents, money. They cooperate to go after shared funding opportunities to solve challenges that mutually benefit both communities.
Leaders in Montgomery and Smithers identified abandoned and dilapidated properties as being a significant challenge in both towns, and put forward the solution of a code enforcement officer to help address this concern. Hiring a code enforcement officer presented its own challenge for these two towns that need to make every dollar count in their municipal budgets. In combining their efforts through the council, Montgomery and Smithers were able to hire a joint code enforcement officer to help tackle the issues of abandoned and dilapidated buildings in the community.
Like many communities in West Virginia, Montgomery and Smithers are no strangers to navigating economic hardship. A few key events led to the loss of jobs in their community. The decline of the coal industry has had a significant impact on their area over time. In 2017, West Virginia University Institute of Technology (WVU Tech) moved their entire campus from Montgomery to Beckley, taking nearly 300 jobs with it. Then, in 2019, the local high school in Smithers closed and jobs ended along with it.
“It was a devastating blow,” said Mayor Ingram while speaking of losing WVU Tech in their community.
Through the Strategic Initiative Council, there are pathways and relationships in place to bring forward the voices of many residents in both Montgomery and Smithers, and community engagement is a key tactic. The leadership on the Council has placed a strong emphasis on being transparent in acknowledging the community challenges and collaborative in identifying solutions, and the trust built through this unique partnership creates the climate needed for the two towns to weather shocks and downtowns in their economies together.
“We’re all in this together, and we’re either going to solve it together or we’re going to go down together,” said Mayor Cavalier.
Through their participation in the WV Community Development Hub’s Cultivate West Virginia program, 20 community teams are moving forward small scale projects to build momentum in Montgomery and Smithers. Public art, special events like the farmers market and yoga classes, streetscaping and signage, a community garden, and more projects help to engage volunteers and build the foundation for positive change that is led by residents. Community members have their own agency when proposing projects and are offered as many resources and tools as possible. Ultimately, these volunteers take initiative and grow in their leadership through the projects. New leaders are identified and welcomed into the work of the community.
Community leaders and volunteers in the area are hopeful, and businesses and organizations see the value in Montgomery and Smithers. BridgeValley Community and Technical College is now taking up many of the buildings left behind by WVU Tech, bringing jobs and economic growth to the community. Start-ups, like Ranger Scientific, are establishing roots in the community. And more recently, West Virginia State University Extension assigned an Extension Agent to Montgomery and Smithers to build community and economic development in the Upper Kanawha Valley region.
The residents of Montgomery and Smithers became experts at working together, and they found that they thrive when more people are welcomed into their efforts. “We’re not always going to agree, but we’re always going to support each other,” said Mayor Cavalier.