By Maralisa Marra
Many citizens gathered at The Soapbox in Shinnston to participate in the Community Conversation conducted by The Cultural Foundation of Harrison County on July 26. They discussed how the citizens would like Shinnston to look and what kind of experience the town could offer in the next 15 years.
The Cultural Foundation Board President Andy Walker said the foundation believes that arts, culture, and music can transform communities and help foster economic development.
After soliciting a wide range of ideas, board members Kent Spellman and Jason Young suggested that those changes are possible through community investment and asked the citizens to invest in their community through financial support for The Cultural Foundation.
Spellman and Young conducted the meeting and set the ground rules for the discussion: no negativity, have a solution for each concern, share the conversation, leave personal agendas at the door, respect differences, be inclusive and transparent, be kind but not nice, and look forward not back.
“We’re going to be looking forward as to what Shinnston can be, not what it was,” Spellman said.
He also said, “Be kind, but not nice. When you’re nice, you sugar coat things. We need some honesty when we have this conversation, so be kind in your words, but don’t sugar coat it.”
Walker said that the foundation has been talking about conducting these conversations for a couple years now. He said the foundation exists “ to create a culture and arts-rich community to support our communities through the arts to help drive economic development through the arts.”
For the foundation’s first 42 years, it was primarily focused on awarding grants, according to Walker.
“Over the past six to seven years, our mission as an organization has really started to change,” Walker said. “It has begun to broaden. We want to move beyond just providing grants one time a year. We want to know from the people who are making art, the leaders in the community, how as an organization we can support you all in your communities.”
Spellman said, “I’ve been doing this work for a long time, and I can tell you, Shinnston is not going to change next year. Princeton took 15 years, but it was worth it. Buckhannon took 12 to 15 years, but it was worth it. And you cannot get to the end of that journey unless you start the journey, and that’s what we’re going to be doing tonight, figuring out how to start that journey.”
Board members of the foundation were also present who were dedicated solely to taking notes on what each citizen had to say for further consideration.
The conversation began with identifying the opportunities that Shinnston has that the community can build upon. City Clerk Kathleen Panek was the first to speak up
“Almost every occupiable retail space in this town is occupied by a business,” she said. “The only empty buildings are the ones that aren’t fit for use.”
Residents said the community can capitalize on other aspects of town, including performance talent like actors and singers, the city park amphitheater, Wind Down Wednesdays, the Shinnston Community Band, the rail trail, many available walls for murals, Ingra & Co. Dance Studio, and the annual Turkey Trot. Also, Shinnston is well-placed geographically.
“The secret to a vibrant downtown is basically three items: music, art, and food,” Spellman said.
Mayor Rodney Strait said, “We have people here that are artists, craftsman, but they have no outlet to display or showcase their talents.”
Spellman suggested a potential gallery in Shinnston to remedy Strait’s concern.
Young took over mediating the conversation.
“I’m going to ask you to get very specific with me, and we are going to for the next few minutes generate a list of assets,” he said. “We are going to call these the arts and culture assets that you currently have in Shinnston. These are specific things that you have that you can build upon. We are going to put them in four basic categories: people, places, things, and ideas.”
Citizens in attendance brainstormed for each of the four categories while the foundation’s designated note taker recorded every person, place, thing, and idea mentioned.
Young asked, “Who are the people in this community that you consider to be the arts and culture assets, either as leaders or makers and creators? I want specific names.”
Citizens came up with a list of specific people that they are confident in their abilities to spearhead arts and culture movements in Shinnston: Maria Cusack, Brendan Gallagher, Charlie Cowger, Maralisa Marra, Delores Minor, Bethany Nuzum, Ed Klimek, Wesley Benson, Anthony Ellis, Jason Martin, Tammy Martin, Emma Johnson, Shinnston Community Band Members, Mason Moore, Sarah Toll Davis, Olivia Gianettino, Ingra Pratt, and Olivia Spino, among others.
In addition to Shinnston’s creatives, citizens brainstormed and created equally lengthy lists of the community’s places, things, and ideas that can be capitalized on.
When Spellman took over the conversation again, he said, “I want you to be thinking about what you would like Shinnston to look like in 15 years.”
Hopes for Shinnston included to be known as “Music City, West Virginia,” to be a place for theater, to utilize the Sunset Ellis Drive-In as an event venue, walkable streets, outside creative dining, a more diverse population, and much more.
“What we’re going to talk about now is the middle,” Young said. “What’s missing? Or what’s needed to get us from now to the future?”
The group said things like organized people power, promotion of the town’s happenings, places, and history, financial stability, control of the buildings that are in the city, marketing, advertising, and citizens shopping and supporting local businesses.
The foundation board members shifted the conversation again and asked how The Cultural Foundation can help the city achieve the needed things listed above.
Some people said they needed technical assistance when promoting their website. Gallagher suggested The Cultural Foundation could help by using its resources, such as social platforms, to promote Shinnston’s events.
A few more ideas like training citizens to better promote the city and having regular community meetings were also mentioned.
As the meeting commenced, Spellman asked, “If you knew, for example, that you could give $100 to The Cultural Foundation and that $100 would be guaranteed to be used in Shinnston, would that raise your interest in contributing to The Cultural Foundation?”
Then, Young asked, “If you knew that you were able to give $100 to The Cultural Foundation and The Cultural Foundation was going to give 25 more dollars on top of that all to be used in Shinnston, would that pique your interest in giving to The Cultural Foundation?”
“You cannot make change unless you invest your time, your energy, your ideas, and your money,” Spellman concluded.