BECKLEY (AP) - Many West Virginians remember the days when their small towns were thriving. Local grocery shops, mom and pop shops and restaurants comprised the bustling downtown scene, and summer nights were spent at the drive-in movie theater and local diner.
In 2014, the nostalgia for those days is stronger than ever, and many long for that bygone area of strong local economies and even stronger communities.
One statewide initiative, "What's Next, West Virginia?," is seeking to spark local conversations and encourage community action that could one day bring those days back.
The nonpartisan, statewide initiative is designed to provide a platform to encourage community-based conversations about our state's future and to help communities develop action plans based on their own ideas for building stronger local communities.
"The big underlying question here is: 'How can we as West Virginians play an active role in writing our own economic future?'" said Catherine Moore, the Appalachian Transition Fellow assisting with the initiative.
"What can we do as citizens to create the future that we want for ourselves and for our children?"
The initiative is being organized by a broad coalition of partners, including nonprofit, philanthropic, governmental, educational and faith-based organizations.
Among the partners are the West Virginia Center for Civic Life, the West Virginia Community Development Hub and West Virginia Public Broadcasting, which will each be assisting the effort in different capacities.
The West Virginia Center for Civic Life will be offering workshops for those wishing to help facilitate those conversations within their community, as well as providing assistance on how to build local teams, said director Betty Knighton.
The first opportunity to get involved with the initiative will be June 4-5 at the Civic Life Institute in Charleston, where interested individuals will receive the materials and training necessary in order to spark the conversation in their communities.
Knighton said the partners are trying to knit together as diverse a group of participants as possible in order to gather a broad perspective of both issues and opportunities that exist within communities.
"This really is an initiative where every single person is not just welcome, but they're needed," said Knighton.
Knighton said the goal of "What's Next, West Virginia?" is not just to help West Virginia have a stronger economy, but also to connect ideas and efforts as they develop across the state.
"A lot of people in West Virginia are doing some very interesting and innovative things," said Knighton. "There's currently a lot of synergy around trying to develop local economies, and that will bubble up into an overall improved state economy."
Knighton said the website, whatsnextwv.org, will help connect the ideas and allow for collaboration to happen, when possible.
Once communities develop their own action plans, the West Virginia Community Development Hub will serve as a resource for groups to solicit advice on how to implement the actions, Knighton said.
From how to develop relationships among local food producers and consumers, improve education and the workforce, or enhance and expand pre-existing initiatives, Knighton said the ideas that can result from the local conversations are endless.
"The unique thing about this initiative is that it can take all kinds of shapes and forms depending on who wants to get involved and how much they want to localize the model to their area," said Knighton. "I think that where it's going is going to get really exciting."
Individuals need no particular background or affiliation to participate. Community groups, schools, businesses, faith-based groups, elected officials and concerned citizens are encouraged to join the conversation.
Interested individuals are encouraged to visit whatsnextwv.org and sign up under the "How do I get involved?" tab, email email@example.com or call 304-344-3430.
Those wishing to learn how to organize local discussions can register for the Civic Life Institute, slated for June 4-5 in Charleston, at www.wvciviclife.org. Scholarships are available.