Revitalizing Hinton, WVOctober 6, 2015
How this tiny town recreated its old rail economy
Just outside of Hinton, folk legend John Henry took his final stand against the rail industry’s Industrial Revolution. Today, the town is taking a different route.
There are 2 ways to see this story: that John Henry was a hero, standing up for the working man against the machines. And then there’s the cautionary tale, about resisting progress.
Looking at Hinton today, it seems the truth about the folk hero may be somewhere in the middle. The West Virginia pride at the heart of Henry’s tale, to the outside world, is sometimes misinterpreted as nothing more than a stubborn resistance to change. Hinton is evidence that that they’re wrong. The tiny rail town is very much embracing change to build a new, robust economy. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re willing to leave their rail industry roots behind— or that they need to.
“I think it’s my West Virginia upbringing. It’s my roots. I have that sense of pride we native West Virginians all share."
It turns out the town’s newfound success is deeply rooted in their past.
The crux of Hinton’s renaissance is its historic district— at 16 square blocks, it’s one of the largest in the country. Once the convergence point for rail, coal and lumber transport, it’s now the springboard for a new economy, driven not by energy, but by people.
Here’s how a tiny town like Hinton recreates itself:
1. Start Hungry.
“It’s not uncommon for 4 or 5 generations of a family to live here. I appreciate that. You don’t get that everywhere you go,” said Summers County commissioner Jack David Woodrum.
Over the span of a decade, Hinton has gone from a quiet little family community to a vibrant destination. It still has that tight-knit, hometown comfort, but it’s somehow more connected now than it has ever been. It’s more abuzz. More self-aware. “Hungrier.”
Dozens of businesses have swept in. Historic buildings are being renovated, one by one. It’s happened at such a pace, it’s attracted national attention.
If you ask folks where this all started, they point to Ken Allman.
“I get a lot of credit for other people’s hard work,” Ken said. If you ask him his role in Hinton’s revitalization, he’ll tell you about all the great work others are doing to build it up. He loves the town. He believes in it. And he also believes this would have happened, with or without him.
Humble nature isn’t just some image Ken projects. It’s so ingrained in his character, it became a tenant of his business. “Humble. Hungry. Smart.” That’s the mindset that has built a mini-empire: Allman owns an inn, market restaurant, theater, general store/art gallery, AM radio station and an events center.
“I think it’s my West Virginia upbringing,” Ken said. “It’s my roots. I have that sense of pride we native West Virginians all share. The challenge of that is seeing potential in something… and then working to help it fulfill that potential.”
Ken’s “Humble. Hungry. Smart.” mantra echoes through the wider community, too. Cooperation is their lifeblood. The town’s drive is sustained by a dedicated network of doers, drawing out the best ideas from the collective and floating them from all sides.
2. Give It One Big Push.
All the drive forward traces back to one business: PracticeLink, Ken’s medical recruiting agency— now one of the most prominent in the country. But in its bootstrap beginnings, headquartering in Hinton was just a convenient choice. Not that Ken wasn’t happy to build his business in his hometown, of course, but it also made financial sense. Hinton was more affordable than the cities. And it had broadband.
So Ken set up shop. But when PracticeLink started growing, it needed more than the tiny town had.
Enter that ol’ West Virginia ‘stubbornness.’ Instead of uprooting, Ken decided he was just going to have to turn Hinton into what he needed it to be.
First, there was restoring a nearby building to open the Guest House Inn, where Ken’s business clients could stay. Then, the Market at Courthouse Square, to give the guests a high-quality dining option. To add entertainment, he remodeled The Ritz Theatre, bringing in live performances and film alike. Ken bought established local business, too, to help them grow. The historic AM radio station and Otter & Oak, a quirky downtown general store and art gallery, joined his collection.
Each business works independently with its own managers, but they all play a role in creating a wider vision for Hinton.
“I’m not going to say it makes me proud; I’m just grateful to have been a part of it,” Ken said. “The potential was always here, we just…” he trails off, trying to put his finger on what it is he and Practicelink brought to the table. He offers a few stray, uncertain guesses. But he doesn’t seem to find an answer he believes.
Ken’s personal influence on Hinton is undeniable, to everyone but him.
“This was always going to happen,” he concludes.
3. Build What You Already Have.
Ken’s confidence in Hinton isn’t unfounded. The town did have a lot in place before he came home.
“Hinton has the outdoorsy culture of Fayetteville, and the rich arts culture of Lewisburg,” he said. “But it’s something unique, too. I think most importantly, the historic district has to be preserved because it’s part of what makes the area different.”
Many of Hinton’s most distinct, longstanding assets are residual. This isn’t the first time the town has seen a boom, and the remnants of its original heyday are still directing its course today. At the turn of the century in the 1900s, Hinton was a rail town— not just sustained by the rail line, but a product of the rail line. The heavy coal and lumber freight along the C&O Railroad was the entire reason Hinton existed.
"Replacing a 100-year-old brick building with a tin box doesn’t do any good for the community.”
When everything in your town was once tied to an industry that’s now a quaint reflection of nostalgia and yesteryear, and a symbol of the growth of a nation, you have a story worth telling.
That’s why tourism has become the unifying theme of Hinton’s resurgence. Everything the community is pouring its efforts into— the arts, the history, the dining, the entertainment— it’s all designed to lure travelers. Come for the charming history, stay for the cuisine, the show, the shopping and more.
“The priceless beauty and history that we have to share was already here,” Ken said. “All we added was infrastructure.”
Like his decision to bring PracticeLink to Hinton, Ken stumbled into his initial restoration efforts by convenience. When he needed a place for business guests to stay, the old building adjacent to his was just the easy choice.
“As the years have unfolded, we’ve become more interested in the economic value restoration can create,” Ken said. “It would be hard to replicate the unique architecture that we already have, with its own warmth and beauty. Replacing a 100-year-old brick building with a tin box doesn’t do any good for the community.”
Other restoration projects have followed, from the old depot to the courthouse, the visual centerpiece of the historic district, in progress now.
“I think we got lucky that we got a lot done early,” Ken said. “Before, some people looked at older buildings as a liability. But we’ve proven it can help rebuilt the community, and that it’s an asset.”
As any town slammed by the disappearance of industry learns, you can’t put all your eggs in one rail car. So history isn’t the only thing Hinton is restoring.
Parklands are another piece of the grand plan. Hinton is the connector between the Greenbrier Valley and New River Gorge National Park, at the confluence of the major 3 recreational rivers. Surrounded by Pipestem and Bluestone State Parks, and a short drive from natural wonders like Sandstone Falls, it’s the lone human settlement that bridges the Mountain State’s most scenic natural settings.
But that vast wilderness is both an asset and a challenge.
Sure, the parks create recreation and beauty. But unlike other notable small town resuranges in Southern West Virginia, Hinton is a little off the beaten path. It’s tucked back a good 10 miles from the nearest major roadway.
When you’re angling for visitors, inaccessibility moves to the top of the community action agenda.
As the townsfolk worked to create signage that could direct new visitors to town, another project widened the roadway to the nearby Bluestone Lake, making it safer for the people already there. Simultaneously, they overcame the limitations of the parks, and capitalized on them.
That type of holistic approach to planning brings all the little ideas together into a real, comprehensive revival.
Since it just so happens that building tourist attractions also builds quality of life, another goal fits seamlessly into Hinton’s wider picture: new industry. Inviting infrastructure helps companies attract and keep quality employees.
The broadband helps ground those efforts. For all its physical remoteness, Hinton is not disconnected. Commissioner Woodrum is working hard to bring in new businesses, and said the broadband has been a blessing.
“The mentality before was that the railroad was always going to be here, and that changed,” he said. “Most of what you see is tourism and community development, and trying to establish more of a sense of pride in the community, which is important for the economy as well as personally. But we aren’t relying on just that.”
5. Keep the Momentum Moving.
“I heard people say, ‘This town isn’t going to change. You’re not gonna do any better, “ commissioner Woodrum said. “But people realized we can be anything we want to be. We just have to go out and make it happen.”
“Making things happen is addictive. The more you see, the more you want to see done.”
And they are. Hinton’s progress is trampolined by a web of grassroots projects: the Hinton Hope Foundation, funding ideas. Beautification volunteering from the high school class of 1967. A collaborative Convention & Visitors Bureau. Blueprint Roundtables to discuss development. The list goes on, and continues to grow. Most of these local committees and groups have sprung up in the last few years.
“Success breeds more success,” commissioner Woodrum said. “Making things happen is addictive. The more you see, the more you want to see done.”
The commissioner himself has his hand in several organizations working to keep Hinton’s momentum moving: The New River Gorge Regional Development Authority, the New River Gorge Gateway CVB, West Virginia Association of Counties, Workforce West Virginia and others.
“I don’t think I’m any different than a lot of these other folks,” commissioner Woodrum said. “There’s a lot of crossover between organizations. You always have a few people who want to do a little bit of everything, but we’ve gone beyond that. And that’s been important. The communication between groups gave us a common goal and common direction.”
It’s not just new organizations. The Hinton Historic District has new neighbors— both people and businesses.
“I’ve seen people specifically seek out homes here, and open more shops here,” Ken said. “To me, that’s the proof. It’s validation of our efforts.”