Welch, W.Va.—National and local union leaders, lawmakers—including Sen. Joe Manchin and Gov. Jim Justice—educators, business leaders and other partners and supporters of the landmark 11-year Reconnecting McDowell project converged in McDowell County, W.Va., today to officially dedicate the Renaissance Village apartment building intended for teachers and other professionals.
The building marks a significant milestone in the group’s ongoing work, led by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who, with many partners, has led a hands-on, community driven start-to-finish approach at helping support and revitalize the rural Appalachian community that has been suffering economic struggles since the coal industry abandoned the community about 50 years ago.
Noting the diverse group at the dedication and the partners involved in Reconnecting McDowell, Weingarten said: “When we stay true to our values and create trust, we can bridge ideological differences and divisiveness. We did this in McDowell, and it can be done across the country.”
Attending the ribbon-cutting ceremony were the two people who brainstormed the creation of Reconnecting McDowell—Weingarten and Gayle Manchin, former first lady of West Virginia. Manchin was the board chair of Reconnecting McDowell until she recently became co-president of the Appalachian Regional Commission. Joining them were Welch Mayor Harold McBride and Nadia Johnson, a McDowell high school educator and a Renaissance Village resident.
The 100-plus partners of Reconnecting McDowell come from widely divergent worlds, including corporations, labor, foundations, nonprofits, politics and government agencies at the national, local and state levels. They provide expertise, financial contributions and ideas to help achieve the group’s goal of providing sustainable programs to improve education; provide access to health, social and emotional programs for children and families; and spur economic development. The partnership from the beginning was centered around trust, support and need, respecting and listening to the community and their dreams and aspirations, and creating pathways and projects to support them.
Renaissance Village is intended to provide teachers and other professionals with affordable housing close to their schools or other places of employment. Welch, the county seat, had no available modern housing units, requiring teachers and others to live in neighboring counties and endure long commutes. The 20-unit apartment building has office and commercial space and is the first multistory new construction in Welch in over a half century.
“When first envisioned, Renaissance Village was about possibilities—that when people come together, they can accomplish what is impossible to do alone,” Weingarten said. “We focused on building a better life for the community that never gave up—education, social and emotional well-being, and economic development. We tried to reverse the consequences of economic struggles, and demonstrated that when we work with the broader community and take on seemingly intractable problems that keep families up at night, we can make a difference in people’s lives,” Weingarten said.
But now, she noted, in light of the polarization and divisiveness that have beset our country, Renaissance Village and Reconnecting McDowell’s work is about much more.
“It represents a way of bringing community together, with common values and aspirations trumping division and anger. When you deeply listen, act and build trust, you can bridge ideological and political divides to help everyone succeed. This is the work of educators, and this is the work of the labor movement. And while unusual, Reconnecting McDowell and the construction of Renaissance Village are union work,” she said, noting unions fight for a better life for all and for the next generation.
The $9 million apartment building was financed through a variety of sources. Initially, the AFT provided a $2 million grant. The partnership received a $2 million loan from Boston Private Bank and $2.25 million in New Market Tax Credit Equity from Building America, a subsidiary of the AFL-CIO’s Housing Investment Trust. It also obtained a $1 million grant from the Abandoned Mine Land Economic Revitalization Program and raised $1.45 million from a capital campaign.
McDowell County is a rural, economically disadvantaged community, many of whose families were left behind when the coal companies pulled up stakes in the early 1960s. Middle-class families with good coal jobs were left unemployed with nothing else to fall back on. Since then, the county has suffered high unemployment, little to no social service or heathcare programs to help deal with drug epidemics and other health issues. Academic performance was poor, due in great part, Weingarten and Manchin said, to the consequences of the economic downturn and extremely difficult home circumstances.
Gayle Manchin said: “We met people where they were, acknowledged their pain and struggles and showed them that together, we can make a difference.” She said that while so many things were tried to improve schools and student achievement—including a state takeover—nothing moved the needle. She and Weingarten thought “outside the box” to create a partnership that would provide children and families access to programs and services to overcome the problems brought on by chronic economic struggles.
Reconnecting McDowell has become a part of the daily fabric in the county, organizing, promoting and providing assistance for scores of projects involving health and wellness, promoting tourism and kayaking, donating tens of thousands of books to children, supporting early literacy with board books at community baby showers, providing teacher training, even assisting with parades and fairs. It has become one of the chief conveners for economic development projects, including helping to launch a mobile farmers market, working with Tug Fork River on generating more river users and visitors, obtaining a grant for Kids’ Fishing Day at Berwind and Anawalt lakes, and promoting music and storytelling performances at the Caffrey Arts and Cultural Center.
“Thanks to Reconnecting McDowell, our county now has programs and services that are making an amazing difference. The apartment building is a tangible and psychological boost for our community. Our students now have health and dental services, kids are doing better in school and many have received scholarships to go to college. There’s just a general sense of hope on our streets,” said Welch Mayor McBride.
Five McDowell high school graduates who participated in the program’s Broader Horizons mentorship program have graduated from college and returned to McDowell Public Schools as teachers or other education employees.
A sampling of accomplishments since Reconnecting McDowell was formed in 2011:
- Frontier Communications greatly expanded every school’s broadband for high-speed internet service at no charge. Shentel provided broadband access to 11,000 county households, with discounts for homes with school-age children.
- High school graduation rates have improved nearly 9 percent, to 82.5 percent in 2020-21.
- McDowell students enrolling in college jumped 30 percent, to 55 percent in 2016.
- The dropout rate dropped nearly 3.5 percent, to 1.1 percent in 2015-16.
- Teen pregnancy was down by 30 percent in 2017 from the previous six years.
- Across all grade levels, student proficiency in math has increased from about 15 percent in 2014-15 to 23 percent in 2017-18. English language arts also saw improvement.
- AT&T Foundation provided grants for the Broader Horizons program, which has mentored nearly 60 students, with most going to college or the military.
- All children now have access to school-based health clinics, mental health services and dental care.
- The Maier Foundation has donated $140,000 for several scholarships to high school seniors to attend a four-year West Virginia college.
- Reconnecting McDowell has donated tens of thousands of books to children throughout the county and has provided clothing, nonperishable food and school supplies for Care Closets at two schools.
- With support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a partnership with the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition and the West Virginia University Extension Service, Reconnecting McDowell launched a mobile farmers market—Go Growcery—to sell fresh, locally grown produce in this 535-square-mile food desert. The partnership has submitted a proposal to USDA to fund the market through 2025, when it could be self-supporting.
“Reconnecting McDowell is an important restart for the community and can become a foundation for a lot more over the years,” Weingarten said.