New Housing Complex Aims To Bring More Teachers To McDowell: Is It Working?
As part of an effort to encourage more teachers to live in McDowell County, a nonprofit called Reconnecting McDowell began envisioning a housing project in downtown Welch in 2011. The Renaissance Village is now officially complete, with 20 apartments in a 4-story building in downtown Welch. Six of 20 apartments are still available. So far, no teachers have moved in.
Renee Bolden’s mother is one of the apartment’s new tenants. Her mom, a retired nurse who’s spent most of her life in a remote community in another part of this county, was looking for a place where she wouldn't have to do any maintenance because she's getting older. “She's here in the center of everything that pretty much happens in McDowell County,” Bolden said.
Other renters in the building work as an ambulance driver, a coal miner, and a Mormon missionary leader.
The apartments cost $675 for a one bedroom, $825 for a two bedroom. For context, here in McDowell, you can easily buy a house for $50,000.
Still, apartments in the Renaissance Village are low maintenance, and come with appliances like a washer and dryer. “All of the units come with the utilities, dishwasher, stove, oven, [and] refrigerator. The kitchen [is] ready to roll when you when you come in,” explained Mark Kemp, a grants manager for Reconnecting McDowell. He also lives here, and he said one of the conveniences of living in Renaissance Village is being right in the heart of downtown Welch, nestled up beside the local movie theater.
Down the street from the building, there’s an ATV shop, and a giant and unused parking garage – a symbol of times gone by, when in the 1950s and 60s, Welch was a bustling city. People here talk nostalgically of the days when you could shop in Welch. Today, most of the old stores are gone, as are big chain stores like Walmart.
Without those amenities, it can be tough to attract workers to live here, including teachers.
“One of the issues in McDowell County is more than half the teachers live somewhere else outside of this county,” said Bob Brown, an organizer with the American Federation of Teachers, or AFT, and directs the union’s nonprofit, Reconnecting McDowell.
“And it's really important, we think, ideally, for teachers to live in the communities where they work,” he said.
Brown said he believes Renaissance Village will attract teachers and businesses. A coffee shop, a gift store, and a Brazilian restaurant on the building’s first floor are planned for the first floor.
The idea for Renaissance Village started back in 2011 when Gayle Manchin was the president of the West Virginia Board of Education. She talked AFT president Randi Weingarten into partnering, and together they formed Reconnecting McDowell. Brown admits that they didn’t realize it would take so long to build Renaissance Village.
“I don't know that we'd have done anything any differently. It just took a lot longer than we had hoped,” he said.
The first delays hit after they bought a building in downtown Welch, and realized there were extensive issues with lead paint, asbestos and mold. The basement was also damaged from past floods. They decided it would cost less to simply tear the building down. Rebuilding ended up costing $9 million.
They got federal and state grants. AFT chipped in $2 million. People from all over the country donated money to the project, many of them members of various unions. Finally, in 2018, seven years after Reconnecting McDowell was created, they started breaking ground on the Renaissance Village.
Brown said he’ll never forget a sight in the first days as they began construction, when several elderly people brought lawn chairs to watch the building. “This is the first multi-story new building in Welch in over 50 years,” Brown said. “So it brought a sense of excitement.”
They finished half the building in 2020, and tenants began moving in. They finished the final apartments this past December. They have had interest from several teachers, and hope that by summer or fall of this year, they will have teachers move in.
“I guarantee you could go walk the streets today and you'll find some people who are skeptical of our work and see us as outsiders,” Brown said. “That's okay. We know that we made a difference. And we will continue to make a difference.”
Back out in the parking lot, Renee Bolden carried an armful of boxes for her mother’s apartment. Her middle school-aged daughter was excited to be able to stay with her grandmother in downtown Welch, because she’ll be closer to her school, and might be able to do more extra curricular activities.
Like many people in McDowell, Bolden remembers when this city was packed with people.
“I want that for our home again, I want that for my child,” she said. “I want that for all of our children here to, you know, to love home and not feel like they have to leave.”
One housing project can’t fix all McDowell County’s problems. But maybe, it can help more people feel like a part of the community. And, if more people stay, maybe teachers will stay too.