When we first spotted Jason Myer selling hotdogs from his cart in Davis Park, off Charleston, West Virginia’s busy Capitol Street, he was in the middle of the lunch hour rush, with a steady line of customers. We caught up with him a couple hours later, down the block at Taylor Books, an indie shop, cafe, gallery, and general meeting place that’s been an institution in downtown Charleston since 1995. A native of Wirt County, a little more than an hour’s drive north, Myer had recently moved back home from Portland, Oregon, leaving an unhappy broadcast-journalism career to go into business for himself. He chose hotdogs because, “when things get bad, cheap food does better.”
Once a promising high school student who left West Virginia for better opportunities, Myer is now a 43-year-old in a different mind-set. He appreciates West Virginia’s quality of life, its value as a place where you can “own an acre of land and an old farmhouse for $110,000,” and he loves the people of Charleston, who, when he’s running low on $1 bills, will go get him change without being asked to.
Indeed, the economy in the state capitol is becoming more and more local, as West Virginia’s largest city (population: 50,821) moves toward the trends of local shopping and walkable living. While the Kanawha Valley still struggles with how to shift from a mono-coal economy that declined fast–taking with it business from local banks, law offices, and engineering firms that served the industry–Charleston is also making strides to revitalize its downtown, with investments in the riverfront and the civic center (currently undergoing an $87 million renovation), as well as new restaurants, retail, and development. The Charleston Area Alliance (CAA) works toward both goals, with efforts to attract new business, boost entrepreneurship, and grow existing local industries like automotive and chemical sectors. It’s also trying hard to court young people, the creative class, and innovative thinkers.
This summer, it hosted a pop-up miniature golf course downtown. Events like Urban Living Week–hosted by a CAA committee, Generation Charleston, focused on young professionals–drum up interest in living downtown, where new condos, often in converted buildings, can sell for up to $1 million. Through an initiative called Radical Entrepreneurial Ventures, CAA recruits small startups like Autopods, a Pittsburgh-based green transportation company, to open in the city. Currently, Pittsburgh and Charleston are the only two cities with its eye-catching green electric pedi cabs. (Here in Charleston, they service everyone from downtown visitors to elderly residents on their way to doctor’s appointments.) The pods and Myer’s hotdogs are both key to the area’s future, says Matt Ballard, CAA president and CEO.
“Those types of small businesses are really what make an economy,” he says. They also give visitors a positive impression, creating a landscape of interesting amenities–food trucks, diverse restaurants, unique shops–that comprise what Ballard calls the “coolness quotient” cities like Charleston need to attract young creative professionals. Capitol Street, a picturesque thoroughfare with cobbled sidewalks and painted storefronts, is already a bright expression of that idea.
Right across from the park where Myer was selling hotdogs is Oddbird Gift Emporium, open since February. Owner Naomi Bays says she never considered that it might be a bad time to start a business in Appalachia. On the contrary, the more she worked on local arts festivals and downtown revitalization efforts and saw the area’s creative economy bloom, the more she was convinced that Charleston was “really on the cusp of something.” Bays remembers being a teenager in downtown Charleston, her entertainment options consisting of department stores, the Charleston Town Center Mall, and an ice rink. These days, she’s seeing 20-somethings downtown in numbers she’s never seen before: “Sometimes it’s like a whole bus of ’em got dropped off somewhere,” she says. And while the mall has seen stores like Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch close over the last few years, downtown has begun to perk up as both native and visiting shoppers demand local goods.
“Ten years ago, you did not have people asking for West Virginia artists,” she says. But now, “I’ve had people get upset that the entire store is not West Virginia-made.”
Myer and Bays both take their places in the local economy seriously. Bays told us she wanted people to consider their everyday purchases and whether they couldn’t get those same items locally: “People don’t realize how much money, when you buy from a local business, actually goes back into the economy,” she says.
Myer is happy to be an active member of that economy, but he’s also acutely aware that it’s a picture that’s still developing: Plenty of his friends are opening businesses in the area, but plenty are also leaving. He understands both.
“Many people aren’t comfortable addressing our current reality,” he says. “If you can distance yourself from the right-left divide and just look at coal, at international economics, you understand that our coal is no longer the cheap coal. Our coal is now the expensive coal. Do we let the state get hollowed out, and then have it be a dumping ground for the rest of the nation? Do we reinvent our economy? I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m here trying to run a business, I’m friends with other people trying to run businesses. Lots of people are interested in doing the hard work to have a new economy.”
In an effort to support West Virginian businesses like his, he’s moving to selling just one brand of potato chips: Mr. Bee’s, made a few hours away in Parkersburg. It’s not much, he says, but it’s a drop in the right bucket: “If we don’t have more people starting businesses and figuring out how to make more money change hands between West Virginians, the game’s over.”
Next Stop: Beckley, West Virginia: Building The Businesses That Could Diversify The Appalachian Economy
Courtney Balestier is a James Beard-nominated writer whose work has appeared in the New Yorker online, the New York Times, the Oxford American, and elsewhere. She writes often about Appalachia.
Elaine McMillion Sheldon is a Peabody award-winning documentary filmmaker and visual journalist. She’s currently in production on a feature-length documentary about the lives of several young men escaping the opioid epidemic in Appalachia.