New Martinsville, WV has a population of just over 5,000. During a three-day long music and arts festival held each summer, the number of people roaming the streets of the town’s small, quaint downtown area skyrockets past 20,000. In June of 2021, 23,000 people were drawn to New Martinsville for the Back Home Festival. “We’ve had attendees from all 50 states and multiple countries, and Grammy-award winning artists every year,” said Robby Parsons, the Executive Director of the Wetzel County Convention and Visitors Bureau (Wetzel County CVB).
Something special is happening in New Martinsville–and it’s clear that the town’s dedicated leaders are doing something right to lend to transformative growth in a very short time.
West Virginia communities of all sizes are engaging in innovative 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.
In 2016, the Back Home Festival didn’t even exist. “We were throwing around ideas about how we could get people to come home,” said Robby, “Just six years ago, I was one of those people who thought there was nothing to do in this town.” When Robby started at the Wetzel County CVB in 2016, Sandy Hunt, the now-mayor, was the President. When Robby brought up the idea of the music festival, Sandy was ready to run with it. “It all started with her [Sandy’s] vision, and her passion for the community is contagious,” said Robby. Within a year, the team at the Wetzel County CVB was fully committed to their innovative tactic to drive tourism growth in New Martinsville.
During the festival’s first year in 2017, over 5,000 people attended. While this is wildly impressive for a small town festival’s first year, the rate of growth the festival has experienced is nearly unheard of, with over 23,000 attendees in its fourth year (the festival was not held in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic). This means that the festival has grown 460% since its first year just five years ago. Already, Grammy-award winning acts, like Sam Bush and Billy Strings, have graced the Back Home stages.
Other than a highly committed and motivated team and a top-tier line-up, what does this team say is a leading factor in their success? The fact that this three-day event is no charge to attend.
While community leaders may feel reasonably daunted by the idea of spending tourism dollars on a festival that generates no ticket revenue, this is exactly what New Martinsville seems to have done right. For every one dollar spent on tourism, the Back Home Festival generates nine dollars in direct consumer spending in return. “Since the inception of our festival, Wetzel County leads the state in percentage of growth of direct spending due to tourism,” said Robby.
The community of New Martinsville has truly made the Back Home Festival work for it, and community members take pride in being part of the festival. It’s now endorsed by the City, the County Commission, and many local businesses in the area.
This festival is building New Martinsville’s entrepreneurial ecosystem–attendees are purchasing food and drinks from small vendors, shopping at the boutiques on Main Street, visiting local restaurants and coffee shops, spending money on lodging (or, supplies for the free camping at local parks offered throughout the weekend), and buying gas–very often, at the small businesses that are at the heart of New Martinsville’s economy.
A small, but dedicated team pulls off the festival each year. The Wetzel County CVB board members volunteer their time to operate the festival. The board is made up of eight members, who help out by selling tickets to late-night shows, guiding vendors to their set up location, or working a shift at the museum. The stage crew and clean-up crews for the festival are hired out and managed by the CVB. “Typically, we utilize our own friends and family to volunteer for the festival. My parents help with setting up things and tearing down, Sandy’s family and friends run the beer tent, and our friends handle merchandise. One would think that it would take a massive group of staff and volunteers, but it truly doesn’t,” said Holly Morgan, President and CEO of the Wetzel County CVB.
“Two months before the festival, we didn’t even know if it was going to happen,” said Robby. Luckily, the team still managed to pull off its most successful festival yet, and they’re all up for the challenge. “I thrive on the chaos of the event,” said Holly. The size and scope of this event may seem like a big job, but those behind the festival don’t see it as one. “It’s a passion and anytime you’re doing something you’re passionate about, it’s not really work,” said Robby.
Residents of New Martinsville understand that building one festival isn’t enough to create a community – and a resilient economy – that both attracts new people and businesses, and that helps keep current residents and businesses in their community. One of the most remarkable traits of active community leaders in New Martinsville is the way that they tap into new opportunities that come their way. They know they can’t go it alone, and so they look to receive the input of their residents to inform their leadership, and they also leverage the system of support available to them for community and economy building.
Through the Blueprint Communities® program, residents of New Martinsville received input from community members and wrote a strategic plan to help build their common vision. The community’s leaders have a strong relationship with their community members (and volunteers) who helped steer the direction of the strategic plan, and organizations (like the City, the CVB, the Chamber of Commerce, and the County Commission) are coming together to make this vision a reality. The three goals of the strategic plan include:
To encourage business support and expansion, the City, a local EDA, and the Chamber of Commerce are collaborating to bring small business growth to the region through a new marketing campaign. This year-long campaign is in the works to highlight both tourism and economic development in New Martinsville and surrounding communities. “The strength and the resources that we have here have been underutilized for years,” said Mayor Sandy Hunt, and this campaign is designed to bring visitors to the area and highlight how small businesses can thrive in the community. The campaign will bring about a new website and a television ad campaign in which local businesses can choose to be highlighted in commercials for a much lower cost than would typically be available with the support of these organizations.
Through the Blueprint Communities® program, the community has worked to accomplish two strategic plan goals–beautification and repurposing buildings with a minigrant. Located at Bruce Park, a recreational asset of the community, is a historic, above-ground concrete pool which fell into disrepair in 2010. While it was not feasible to remodel the pool, the City is considering its options to make the space usable again. In order to show how this historic structure is valued by the community, the Blueprint Community team organized a project to implement ten murals around the walls of the pool, turning an unused structure into an art installation. Though this was a small, achievable project, it highlights the value this community has for its history and its shared spaces.
Blueprint Communities is a registered service mark of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh.