On Election Day, here are the voices of some of our fellow West Virginians
It was a primary election day that in many ways felt like it was pre-COVID in West Virginia. Voters in all 55 counties voted in schools, churches and community centers. They voted for state senators, city council members, judges, school board members and members of Congress.
Many voted in advance, thanks to widespread early voting. Of course, very many West Virginians did not vote at all.
Believing that the election is — or should be — more about the people of West Virginia and our families, we at Mountain State Spotlight once again deployed to our state to see what our neighbors were thinking.
From Chester to Fayetteville, here’s some of what we heard.
Remembering the vibrancy of Chester’s past
By Douglas Soule
CHESTER – Robin Lowers grabbed the packet of chewing gum and hit a few keys on the cash register.
“It’s a dollar,” she said. Lowers accepted a customer’s bill, pushing the gum and receipt across the counter.
It was a pretty normal day for the Citizens Drug Store, except for the many open polling stations nearby. But Lowers, a store cashier, was not filling out a ballot this primary. She said she was too disenchanted with this year’s picks. There has been too much slander between the candidates, she said, and she doesn’t think any of them will bring sustainable businesses to Chester, a small town at the tip of the Northern Panhandle.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t problems on his mind. The one that points the tip of its nose: the lack of activities to occupy the teenagers of the district. Disenchanted or not, she hopes the leaders chosen this election season will prioritize the introduction of businesses and activities that will fill that void. She is looking to the future as three of her four local grandchildren are still in primary school.
That wouldn’t have been a concern for her decades ago, Lowers said. She grew up just across the Ohio River in East Liverpool, Ohio. In her youth, she walked to hang out in Chester city centre.
“It’s hard to imagine [now],” she says. Whether it’s movie theaters, antique stores, or candy stores, many of these businesses are now gone.
If she was now a young adult in East Liverpool, Lowers doesn’t think she would have a reason to go to Chester. She says this problem of subcontracting in smaller town centers is one she has seen beyond Chester.
“All of these cities died slowly over time,” she said.
Hope for the Arts at Beckley
By Quenton King
BECKLEY — Jerry Rose was walking down Main Street handing out flyers for an upcoming dance recital when he saw a former dance student from decades ago. Standing on the corner of a building that still houses the city’s first elevator, the pair pointed out other historic sites nearby.
“Main Street was so busy,” Rose said. “It was an Americana piece.”
Rose owns a dance theater in Beckley with his wife. The son of a coal miner, he toured professionally for years across the country and even in Russia.
He says Beckley has a strong tradition and passion for the arts. “Some of the best visual artists paint here.”
But many have left.
“The loss of talent,” he said, is one of the biggest challenges Beckley faces. “People who are gifted… I was guilty of the same thing. But I had to go. I had to go and be me. Then I came back to let others know what I had done.
Eventually, Rose sat down on a park bench that he says is named after Madrith Chambers, a recently deceased black activist and former councillor. “So many people are gone,” he said softly.
He pointed to two trash cans. This is where he waited for the bus when he was 5 years old, before they replaced the road with a small park.
“Let me tell you, I did shows for these people when I was 5. I sang and I danced. I didn’t know how to dance, but I did,” he said.
And although there are challenges, Rose is still optimistic about her community.
“I have hope for Beckley,” he said. “I have hope for myself. I’m only 80 and I can’t wait for my future.
Aiming for the potential of beer at the Fairmont
By Amelia Ferrell Knisely
FAIRMONT — Fairmont’s Rambling Root has a vibe — a laid-back, feel-good vibe in a restaurant and brewery where one of the beers is called the “Fairmonster” and there’s a burger with pineapple and bacon on it. The man behind his 65-cent night and ever-growing list of house beers is DJ Cassell, a 36-year-old who opened The Rambling Root five years ago.
Cassell’s business was not immune to pandemic-induced difficulties; the restaurant had to close twice due to COVID and for a time could only offer take out food and beer growlers.
“We still haven’t recovered, and we’re still not hitting our 2018 numbers, even with all the restrictions turned off,” Cassell said. “But, it’s accelerating.”
As he struggles to rebuild his business – amid sky-high food prices – he would like state lawmakers help local brewers across the state. Cassell sees brewing as integral to the state’s tourism push.
Removing restrictive laws — like caps on the percentage of alcohol allowed in beers — coupled with passing bills that would promote distribution are key to creating a thriving brewing scene in Mountain State, said Cassell said. A few years ago, the West Virginia Craft Brewers Guild spoke out against Governor Jim Justice’s proposed income tax repeal, which would have increased the 431% beer barrel tax on barrels brewed at local breweries.
“West Virginia brewing is pretty young…just because we’re doing well doesn’t mean you can take advantage of us,” Cassell said.
Kassel voted early in the morning on primary election day. He is active in his community as The Rambling Root organizes fundraisers for local schools, human society and more.
He’d like to see his local officials work to make Fairmont a place people want to stop — whether it’s for a quick bite for those traveling north to Morgantown or a small-town destination in West Virginia. And, he would like to see a focus on building Fairmont as an affordable, family-friendly neighborhood to attract young adults to stay.
“We have a really great opportunity here to bring young people to Fairmont, and I don’t think [elected officials] take advantage of it,” Cassell said.
Reconciling growth and accessibility in Fayetteville
By Ian Karbal
FAYETTEVILLE — Debra Laird arrived masked and early at the Memorial Building near downtown Fayetteville to vote in the Democratic primary.
Laird, 69, fell in love with Fayetteville in the 1970s after leaving her hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania to attend school in West Virginia. She met her husband, who grew up in the area, and they settled down and raised their children.
“It’s a family community,” Laird said. “People care about the community.”
Over the years, Laird has put his love for the community into action. A retired English teacher, she was director of the local chamber of commerce for a few years in the 1990s and once served on the Bridge Day committee.
Now she sees others like her coming to Fayetteville. Tourism is booming, boosted by the recent national park designation for the New River Gorge. The newcomers fell in love with the area and settled down. This, Laird says, is both a blessing and one of the community’s greatest challenges. Home prices have skyrocketed, and many homes are being purchased by tenants who plan to list them on Airbnb.
“All are important,” she said of the ballot races. “[Voting is] my civic duty. I love this community.