Posts Tagged ‘McDowell County’

Did you know that the first municipal parking garage in the United States was in Welch, West Virginia?

Did you know that the Cincinnati Reds have played baseball in Welch?

Did you know that in 1960 Welch ranked number one in coal production in the entire country?

The coal-fueled economy of the first half of the twentieth century made Welch a boom town and pushed the population of McDowell County close to 100,000.  But those days are long gone.  If you know Welch or McDowell County at all, you probably know them for the economic hard times they have endured over the last few decades.

Then again, have you seen downtown Welch lately?  Probably not.  If you’re interested at all in downtown revitalization, you should take a look.  It would be worth the drive.

Last week we looked at the McArts Amphitheater in McDowell County and learned that an elaborate design is not always necessary for a place to be memorable.  Then again, a good design can transform a mundane place into something really special.  Such is the case with the Welch Riverfront Park.

A highlight of the Welch Riverfront Park is the amphitheater, which is not only a venue for performance art, but makes an ideal place for downtown workers to enjoy lunch.

From the opposite side of the Tug Fork River, the different levels of the park are more obvious.

The lower level walkway is a great place for a casual stroll.

The view from above is always a favored vantage point.

Built along the banks of the Tug Fork River, the park calls out for people.  People to sit and watch the cars go by.  People to sit on the upper level promenade and watch the world from above.  People to lounge on the concrete steps of the amphitheater and enjoy a sandwich at lunch or take in an evening concert.  Or maybe stroll along the curved sidewalk just a stone’s throw from the sparkling river.

There are so many opportunities to engage the public.  It’s an obvious place for public gatherings and a good choice for more subtle get-togethers.  It’s the kind of space you might expect to find in Charleston, Huntington, or Morgantown.  In Welch, it’s a total surprise.

I don’t know the mechanics of how Welch put such a project together.  I don’t know how it was funded.  But what I do know is that someone in Welch had that vision thing.  Someone had an idea and dared to think big.  I suspect that Mayor Martha Moore played a major role.  I can imagine all the nattering nabobs she had to endure.  And probably still does.

There is no guarantee of a prosperous future for Welch or McDowell County.  Boom times of years gone by seem unlikely.  But the development of the Riverfront Park is a strong step towards building an economically viable downtown.

The old stone wall on the lower level not only adds interest to the park, but could be a metaphor for the history and strength of Welch's past as a foundation for its future.

McArts Amphitheater in McDowell County.


McArts Amphitheater stage.

The photos were taken on my first visit to the McArts Amphitheater in McDowell County, West Virginia.  No, it’s not an impressive facility.  It’s at the top of Tom’s Mountain, just a few hundred yards from the relatively new Mt. View High School.  Just about any designer or urban planner would take one look at the place and jump to the conclusion that it’s not a very good space for people.  Let’s see if that conclusion is justified.

First, the blink test.  Is there a reason to enter the space?  Hmmm.  Not really.  Not at the time of the photo, anyway.  Does it feel safe?  It’s deserted.  Kind of secluded.  No, it doesn’t feel safe.

Does it have adequate seating?  Well, there’s quantity.  Not so much quality.

How about the concept of “a room with a view”?  It’s more or less one big room, with a view of an empty stage. 

So maybe it’s a justified conclusion.  Maybe it’s not a great space for people. 

Not so fast.

Before you can judge the success of a place you must understand its purpose.  The McArts theater is not a park.  It’s not a place where you go to meet friends for a quiet conversation.  It has one purpose. It’s a venue for theater production.  It’s not all things to all people all the time.

Ok, I admit that as theaters go, this one is fairly primitive.  On my first visit, I had a hard time envisioning how the facility would be adequate for any kind of production. But that was before I actually went to see a play.

It was a warm July evening when my wife and I went to a production of “The Terror of the Tug,” a play written by local playwright Jean Battlo which chronicles Sid Hatfield and the coal mine wars of the 1920’s.  We pulled into the grass parking area and were surprised to see dozens of cars already there.  Concessions were being sold from fold-up tables.  It was all very down-to-earth.  To say we felt safe would be an understatement.  We were treated like family members at a reunion.  One of the first persons to welcome us was Jean Battlo herself.

The rickety bleacher seating had been supplemented by cheap plastic lawn chairs.  We found some space in the bleachers and watched as the rest of our “family” made their way in. 

That evening, West Virginia Culture and History Commissioner, Randall Reid-Smith, was in attendance.  Of course being a VIP, he was introduced, and with very little prodding, he was coaxed into giving an impromptu performance.  Not knowing his capabilities, I was prepared to be embarrassed for him.  Instead, I was amazed at the great voice and musicality he possessed as he tore through a Broadway-like number extolling the virtues of West Virginia.  The evening was off to an impressive start.

I wasn’t sure if the play would live up to the professionalism of Reid-Smith.  I should have known better.  Jean Battlo has written an engaging play that recounts an important part of the history of our state.  The actors were amazing.

By the last curtain call (sans curtain), the evening had turned cool.  The flood lights dimmed and gave way to the twinkling of a thousand stars in the sky.  We reluctantly said goodbye to our new family and began the trip back to St. Albans.  It had been a great night and our memories of the McArts Amphitheater will forever be colored by that very positive experience.

There’s a lesson in this story for all of us who are involved in planning public spaces.  A public space is successful when it meets the needs of people.  A public space is successful when good things happen there.  It doesn’t have to be fancy.  We shouldn’t become so enamored with our designs and facilities that we forget to think about the people that will use the space.

This year, the McArts Amphitheater will get a bit of a makeover.  Now don’t get me wrong, new seating will make the place much more comfortable and accessible.   But I think it will always be about the heart of McDowell County and bringing new people into their family.