Who really makes this city go?

November 8, 2014 by Brad McElhinny
who makes city

Charleston cityscape and fireworks photo by Tom Hindman of the Charleston Daily Mail

Earlier this week, a question got me thinking.

The question came during an unexpected visit by journalists James and Deb Fallows. James is national correspondent for “The Atlantic” and has written for the magazine since the 1970s.

They were in Charleston as part of an “American Futures” series they’re writing. It has the subhead “Reinvention and Resilience Across the Nation.”

As I understand it, the series is about communities that could go be on their way up … or on their way down. Ours certainly seems like one of those, a city poised for growth, but susceptible to stagnation.

Culturally, politically, economically — by almost any measure you choose — Charleston seems ready for changes.

But will it change? I’m a native West Virginian, and I’ve lived in Charleston for 20 years. Over those two decades, I’d say it’s been about the same. It’s a calm pond ready for a good ripple if someone would toss a stone in.

Smack dab in the middle of West Virginia, our state Capitol just experienced one heck of a shakeup this very week when Republicans took control of the state House of Delegates and then added on the state Senate for good measure.

Charleston is right on the fault line between the struggling coal fields and the booming natural gas wells.

Which way will Charleston go from here?

James and Deb Fallows get together with editor Brad McElhinny and opinions editor Kelly Merritt at the Charleston Daily Mail

James and Deb Fallows get together with editor Brad McElhinny and opinions editor Kelly Merritt at the Charleston Daily Mail’s conference room

That’s what the Fallowses were here in a first effort to find out.

They sat down with me and editorial page editor Kelly Merritt in the Charleston Daily Mail conference room and picked our brains.

They already had visited with locals like Bob Coffield, who is a local health care, technology and business lawyer who blogs, thinks a whole bunch and gets jazzed about groups like “Create West Virginia.”

They also visited Mayor Danny Jones, plus Larry Groce, the Mountain Stage icon who has expanded his role to broaden Charleston’s cultural scene in other ways.

So in talking to us, the Fallowses asked a question that stumped us. “Who are the people who really make this city go?”

I took that to mean, “Who are the change agents?”

If you are that person and I didn’t immediately think of you, I beg your forgiveness right now.

I didn’t exactly draw blanks. A few names came to mind:

  • Tim Armstead rode the Republican wave into majority leader for the state House of Delegates. But as an Elkview resident, Tim is, proudly, a Hinterlander. He might want to change the state, but I’m not sure Tim’s interested in changing Charleston.
  • Kent Carper is a name that will elicit some groans (hey, I read the VentLine) but I think Kent runs an effective, responsible Kanawha County government. Effective and responsible government equates to high praise.
  • Don Blankenship is a name that might make you spit out your coffee and crumple your paper. No one said the list had to be made up of people you like. At one point, Don was using great wealth to affect politics. He did so while wearing a black hat.
  • Tom Heywood is the solidest of citizens and most recently was the leader behind the successful library levy campaign. He’s a former chief of staff for Gov. Gaston Caperton, current managing partner at the Bowles Rice law firm and serves on a zillion local boards. His superpowers include quiet dignity, intelligence and an air of responsibility.
  • University of Charleston’s Ed Welch and West Virginia State University’s Brian Hemphill are the twin pillars of higher education in the Kanawha Valley. One is established (and very tall!) and the other is a star on the rise.
  • The Rev. Matthew Watts cares deeply about the West Side, a neighborhood that sorely needs an advocate.
  • Mayor Jones should be in the conversation (and, attention VentLine, I like most of what Danny does) but we’d already discussed him. Ditto with Larry Groce, who has expanded his “Mountain Stage” role to many more areas of the local cultural scene.

Influential people and an interesting list of area men of a certain age. But I’m not sure they’re the answers to how I’d phrase the question: Who’s an up and comer? Who is catching lightning in a bottle? Who is going to be the face that people associate with Charleston’s change?

Got a name that I’ll slap my head for not thinking of?

Send me an email to bradmc@dailymailwv.com or a tweet @BradMcElhinny. Or comment below:

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