Volunteer efforts are moving City of Huntington forward
The term “grassroots” gets thrown around a lot across the United States.
The word is meant to symbolize a movement that starts at the local level, and eventually grows to affect policy at a higher level.
It is most often used in politics, usually by an office-holder or candidate trying to promote the idea that his or herw agenda is in line with that of the constituents.
It can be argued that, in this sense, the word is almost meaningless.
However, in the greater Huntington community, the term fits perfectly for what has taken shape over the course of just a few short years.
Local organizations, fueled almost entirely by volunteers and typically funded through contributions or grants, have come together to actually change the face of the community.
Ideas have been translated from thesis papers or even ideas thrown into the ether by voice into hard realities that are having a positive impact on quality of life and overall perception of a city that had been relegated to “down-and-out” status for years.
Phoebe Patton Randolph and Create Huntington
One group that has been credited with planting the seed of change, and helping others to orchestrate a similar effect on everything from food to the arts, is Create Huntington.
The nonprofit was founded by a collection of young professionals who found themselves discontent to live in a city they loved, while watching it decay both in terms of a sense of community and public perception.
Over the years the group has helped build up local efforts that in turn build up the community, through its “Chat ‘n Chew” idea sessions, the CAFÉ program that awards cash for innovative ideas, and volunteering through networking.
Phoebe Patton Randolph, an architect with the Edward Tucker firm, was one of those young professionals who helped co-found Create Huntington.
Randolph grew up in Huntington, but was more or less away for her college career at the University of Tennessee, and spent two years after she graduated working in South Carolina, before returning home in 2003.
She was serving on the West Virginia chapter of the Livable Communities Committee when she met other professionals — like Jessica Pressman and Thomas and Stacy McChesney — who would become the base for Create Huntington.
“The way I understand it, it sort of all came together from the frustration with the very, very negative public view of the city,” Randolph said. “There was a general malaise about the situation, and public agencies weren’t working together.
“When I first came back, there was a real sense of oppressive negativity.”
Randolph said she and others came together over the idea that what was happening with city or state government shouldn’t necessarily dictate how people lived their lives in Huntington.
“I remember the rule for the first meeting was you can’t just come up and complain,” she said. “You had to address it from the angle of ‘What can I do to help solve the problem?’”
For Randolph, Create Huntington started out as a way for her to meet people in her hometown after moving back, but transformed into a hub to spin ideas outward into the community.
“It really has evolved,” she said. “What we were working on in those early days is entirely different from where things are now. Create Huntington has really become one of those groups that is a real organization that makes things happen.”
Randolph is quick to point out that Create Huntington is only the starting point for those who go on to see their ideas realized.
“We were always careful not to claim our prospects,” Randolph said. “It’s the people in the community who made those things happen. There’s no way it could have happened without people who had a vision and the determination to see it through.”
Create Huntington now has a solid footprint in the community and a rotating board of directors to ensure ideas continue to come from new voices.
Randolph stepped off the board a few years ago, and has been more personally involved with the arts and education communities in Huntington.
She is a board member of the Huntington Museum of Art, and has helped secure and put together entire exhibits for the facility.
As for education, she admits it is a bit of a selfish pursuit as her two young children get closer to school age.
“I’m always working on little grassroots projects here and there,” she said. “There’s a lot of cross-pollination in Huntington. A lot of people who are working on one project are also working on something else.”
From her experience, Randolph said she’s learned that amazing things can be accomplished with the right perspective.
“It can seem really daunting when you first get involved in a community project,” she said. “Really it’s just a matter of taking small bites at a time and not getting overwhelmed. It doesn’t have to be a big, huge thing.”
Eventually, Randolph said, anyone can make a big splash by taking small steps toward the end goal.
Tim Adkins and the Burrito Riders
For young volunteers, it’s a landmark of what is happening and can happen in the city.
“You see all the revitalization going on with the Wild Ramp and through Create Huntington, you’re seeing a new group of people who are new to the area or taking a renewed interest in the area and making Huntington a place worth doing something for,” said Tim Adkins, who recently returned to the Jewel City after 20 years of living away from his hometown.
Adkins heads up the Burrito Riders, a group of cyclists who hand out burritos across the city to the homeless and hungry. He also started the Burrito Riders Rebicycle Shop, a small workshop that repairs and refits used bicycles and loans them out to people who need a means of transportation. It’s located in homeless nonprofit Harmony House’s Vanity Fair building on 4th Avenue.
“You do one thing, and it snowballs into four other things,” Adkins said. “It’s a great time to be in Huntington, and I never thought I’d say that. Now, I’ve got so much going on, and I really feel blessed to be able to do this.”
Adkins described the local volunteer efforts in Huntington at present as “underground,” meaning there are a lot of things going on that many people haven’t even heard of yet.
“What we’re doing is pretty niche,” Adkins said. “But if it attracts people to serving, that’s great. And if this doesn’t turn you on, there’s a ton of stuff out there and I’d be happy to point you in the right direction.
“More and more people are learning about homelessness and social injustice, and, in Huntington, we’re seeing more and more people involved than we have in a long time.”
In the case of his cause, Adkins said it’s not just about handing out free food or a free way to get from point A to point B.
The Burrito Riders programs are more about actually forming relationships with the people they serve, he said.
“We go into areas that don’t have a lot,” he said. “We spend time with them. Sometimes we’ll grill up some hot dogs and hand out drinks and do some stuff for the kids with bikes. We’ll fix them or provide them.
“I’ve been doing this for a year now in Huntington, and when we go out, we know these people. We want to hang out with them and try to address their needs.”
But, Adkins said, there is still a lot of need out there.
“I’m really excited about what we do, but it’s never enough,” he said. “There’s way more out there than my one group can address.”
Adkins would like to see his cycle workshop expand, and eventually turn into a place where people can bring their bicycles and actually learn how to repair and maintain them. He would like to have an area where he could offer work space and all the tools anyone needs at a nominal fee.
He’d also like to be able to offer more services to children. Most of what he and the rest of the Burrito Riders do right now is geared more toward adults.
“We’re so new, the sky really is the limit, and hopefully we can do whatever we’re called to do,” he said. “Right now, I just want to keep doing this as long as I can.”
Jesse Riggs and the Orpheum Project
While many groups in Huntington are working on projects to better the community through cleaning up neighborhoods or creating access to a more active lifestyle, there are also more than a few organizations contributing to expanding the city’s cultural attributes.
The Orpheum Project, for example, is aimed at reflecting on and restoring Huntington’s cinematic heritage.
A non-profit started by Cabell County Library employees Jesse Riggs and Max Nolte, who now works at Mountwest Community and Technical College, the group started after Huntington’s Cinema Theater — the last of several downtown movie palaces — closed in 2011.
“When the Cinema Theater closed, it was just starting to do some really cool things, like the flashback events where they would screen older films,” Riggs said. “It’s something there’s a dearth of in Huntington, and it needs to be filled.”
The project’s initial goal was to be able to screen older films on new 35 millimeter prints in the Cinema Theater, which was called the Orpheum Theater when it was opened in 1915.
The former theater is now operating as a church, which is in the process of purchasing the building.
The Orpheum Project is still looking for a space of its own, and has been screening movies in 16 mm fashion at branches of the library and in a garage under the tongue-in-cheek moniker of “Cinema Under the Cars.”
“Right now, with the library program and the films being provided by the (West Virginia) Library Commission in Charleston, we’re able to focus on the hard part, which is building interest,” Riggs said. “We need to build a strong base before we move forward.”
Riggs readily admits he is not a film historian or even necessarily a movie buff, but has an interest in repertory film given Huntington’s history as a town that had multiple movie theaters and play houses. It’s also a big part of his personal life.
“Growing up, my family pretty much spoke almost exclusively in movie metaphors,” Riggs said. “My dad would only watch films in black and white, and so I kind of got that spark from him.”
One of the stated goals of the project is to revitalize interest in classic film in an age when digital technology is king.
He said local volunteer efforts provided some inspiration to get the project going.
“It’s been a definite presence in the past five years,” Riggs said. “There’s been a lot more activity with things like Create Huntington and Chat ‘n Chew.
“There’s a passion to go out and do things. Really, that’s all it takes — some gumption and the initiative to do it.”
Breanna Shell and The Wild Ramp
That’s a strategy shared by Huntington City Planner Breanna Shell, who is also involved in community projects ranging from a city bike map to working with the numerous agencies that are building the Paul Ambrose Trail for Health (PATH).
“You can’t change everything at once,” Shell said. “You try incrementally to make initiatives successful. The ideas that stick move more incrementally.”
Shell, who is the author of a blueprint for city development moving through 2025, said her job works hand-in-glove with strong efforts from community volunteers.
“It’s part of the beauty of Huntington, that there are so many grassroots groups,” she said. “As a city government, we can only do so much. We lead in some ways, but we follow in some ways too.
“Sometimes, it’s the people who have better ideas. And they are helping us implement some of our initiatives with their time and resources.”
Part of the 2025 initiative is fostering neighborhoods that actually serve the needs of the residents. Some Huntington neighborhoods are already built that way, and others aren’t, Shell said.
One example she and several community volunteers cite as the gold standard for community success is the Wild Ramp.
Originally, the concept was the capstone project for three Marshall University students who wanted to explore the concept of a locally-produced food hub in Huntington.
The idea came off of paper and was discussed as an actual plan of action in community groups by 2011. By the next year, the Wild Ramp had opened its doors in Heritage Station, offering year-round locally produced food through a network of producers, three paid employees, and an army of volunteers.
In late 2013, it had become so successful, that the Huntington City Council voted to accept a proposal from the Wild Ramp to take over the Central City Market in the West End to try and revitalize the area.
In May, the Wild Ramp at Central City Market opened its doors.
“You look at what people want and what people value and how that can be provided,” Shell said. “People said we need a local market. Well, we just did it.”
Kari Newman and the Artisan Market
One local artist who has capitalized on her own initiative is Kari Newman.
A glass bead artist, Newman received funds through CAFÉ to start the Artisan Market, an event where everyone from traditional artists to crafters to bakers can gather, show and sell their wares at Heritage Station.
“An artisan is really anyone who makes something with their hands,” Newman said. “I wanted to start something for a wide range of artisans.
“It’s for other artists as well. We’ve had some bands there, and we’re looking into maybe getting some local theater involved.”
The Artisan Market takes place on the second Friday of every month, and is booked up through August. If the event is a continued success, Newman said she’d like to continue it through the fall, and then bring it back the following spring.
“Everyone sold something at the last event, which is huge if it’s your first time doing something like this,” she said.
Selling is nice, but Newman said the event, like so many other community-developed activities in Huntington, is about giving the area residents something they can go to and enjoy.
“Everyone has their different purposes for being there,” she said. “It’s a family event that’s fun for everybody and it’s something interactive.
“It also brings money in, and local artisans are people who are going to reinvest in the community.”
Newman said she would like to incorporate more activities for children, and have different atmospheres for each event, drawing a different crowd each time.
There are many more projects going on in Huntington, and Randolph said anyone can bring their skill set to the table and help make a difference.
“In Huntington there is an incredible network of people, and, once you start getting out there, everybody wants you to be involved,” she said. “There is always a need for more people to support our nonprofits.”