By CARRA HIGGINS
And BEN SIMMONS
(CU and The Inter-Mountain/Lizz Clements)
POISED FOR GROWTH — The town of Beverly was among three local communities selected for the OnTrac program, a precursor to Main Street West Virginia. The project is designed to help towns learn to boost economic growth and network resources.
Three local communities have potential to build on efforts that have already been taken to create economic and community growth.
Wednesday, Gov. Joe Manchin announced Elkins, Beverly and Belington are among the 13 West Virginia cities accepted to the state's first group of OnTrac participants.
OnTrac is an acronym for Organization, Training, Revitalization and Capacity and was recently created by Main Street West Virginia to help communities boost economic growth with evaluation, education and networking resources.
OnTrac affords communities the opportunity to receive training on the National Trust for Historic Preservations Four-Point Approach, which includes organization, promotion, design and economic restructuring; an assessment of strengths and weaknesses; access to an online library of databases and resources; attendance to Main Street training workshops; action-planning services; telephone consultation; scholarship and grant information; technical design visits; and participation in the mentoring program.
"OnTrac illustrates one way the residents of this state have pulled together to improve the quality of life and business opportunities in their respective communities," Manchin said.
OnTrac also acts as a stepping stone to become a Main Street community, which helps towns "experience an increase in tourism through shopping and cultural and social activities; a stabilized or improved housing market; an increase in customers and sales; and an improved image," according to literature about the program.
"The program is a structured approach to strengthening and revitalizing so called 'Main Streets,'" said Randolph County Development Authority Executive Director Jennifer Giovannitti. "By participating in the program, the community can take advantage of technical consultants who have a wealth of knowledge and experience working with small downtown retail cores to help them grow and prosper."
Randolph County Development Authority is acting as Elkins' sponsor for OnTrac. Giovannitti said OnTrac is important to downtown Elkins because it offers a fresh new way to look at the commercial downtown core.
Historic Beverly Preservation and Beverly Historic Landmarks Commission Director Chelley Depp explained the organizations applied to the OnTrac program in order to build on the revitalization that is already taking place in the town. Depp said OnTrac experts will provide an explanation of strengths and weaknesses in Beverly. Historic Beverly Preservation and Beverly Historic Landmarks Commission will work with OnTrac advisers to continue to develop and enhance the town. The Beverly Town Council is serving as the OnTrac sponsor.
"To have the distinction is great," Depp said.
Giovannitti and Depp said the two Randolph County communities will work together to better the entire county.
"Ideally, building shared links with the other neighboring small town Main Streets, like that of the town of Beverly, would expand the economic model further and create more continuity between our towns and cities," Giovannitti said. "Randolph County has a lot to offer."
Belington Revitalization Committee Chairman Chris Sauerwein said the OnTrac program would immensely increase the amount of revitalization resources at Belington's disposal and open doors of opportunity that might not otherwise be possible.
To make OnTrac a success, community participation is vital, explained Main Street Philippi Program Director Tammy Stemple.
Philippi became a Main Street West Virginia city in 1997. Since then, Stemple thinks the city has become a better place to live.
The success of Philippi's Main Street program relied on the dedication and work of volunteers, Stemple said. Their work has resulted in establishing events that bring tourists to the town; enhancing streetscape; and obtaining grants for walking trails and other activities for residents, she explained.
OnTrac is designed as a community program and its success will depend on involvement from a variety of people, including Elkins City Council, building owners, residents and business owners, Giovannitti explained.
Prior to receiving the OnTrac designation, she said Elkins merchants have worked to strengthen and build unity downtown and the Elkins-Randolph County Chamber of Commerce is enthusiastic about the potential of the downtown.
Giovannitti said the RCDA is counting on the ERCCC and Elkins' Downtown Merchants Association to take the lead on the project.
The team of people working directly on the program will be doing community assessments, working with consultants, scheduling interviews with building owners, meeting with businesses, attending training workshops and generally figuring out the best ways to promote the area based on the Main Street model.
"The more people trained and involved the better, because it will be a labor intensive process that needs commitment from all of the stakeholders," Giovannitti said.
"All the stakeholders would have to remain committed to the OnTrac program," she said. "Since the program requires a lot of work to develop and implement the workplan, it is a litmus test for whether the community is ready to take on the Main Street program."
Elkins-Randolph County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ellen Spears said, "The chamber is committed to working in partnership with the Randolph County Development Authority, the city of Elkins and the downtown merchants to build consensus and cooperation among all the stakeholders as we strive together to reach a common goal."
Giovannitti added, "We have to succeed with OnTrac before looking ahead to Main Street and that is why the community and City Council must dedicate serious time and effort to the program."
According to Giovannitti, state OnTrac program directors likely found Elkins appealing because of historic buildings, active commerce, its walkable, quaint streets and because it "holds tremendous potential with the growth of tourism and tourist activity in the adjoining railyard."
"We all want to see the downtown businesses succeed and prosper and we want tourists to come to our community and remember the specific shops and local charm," Giovannitti said. "I hope the OnTrac program gives the community new ideas, new perspectives and new strategies to consider so that Elkins can continue to diversify the economy."
Businesses will benefit from OnTrac, Spears added, because the program revitalization protects the existing tax base and provides an incubator for new businesses.