Bob Henry Baber: Loss of schools to consolidation is a blow Richwood should not absorb

By Bob Henry Baber

Richwood is smack dab in the middle of tourist country. We are a federally designated historic district with a rich history, artists, writers, musicians, wood carvers and more. We are situated at the base of one of the most beautiful forests in the country. Within a stone’s throw are the Falls of Hills Creek, the Cranberry Wilderness and Backcountry, Cranberry Glades, the Highland Scenic Highway and the best hiking, camping, cross-country skiing, and fishing in the east.

We are America’s best kept secret — but not for long. And remarkably, houses and storefronts are for sale for 50 to 75 percent off or more. Truly, we are the Gabe’s of towns, a bargain, and West Virginians and Americans love a bargain.

Since the June 23 flood, we have had to address many issues — over $10 million dollars and counting worth of flood/FEMA damages. And the paperwork — it’s monstrous! FEMA is an insurance claim on steroids. But we have had lots of help in our recovery. The cities of Summersville, Hurricane and Shepherdstown have all stepped up to the plate. And so has the Brooke County EMS team. Many other communities, church groups, and individuals have also helped. It has been an amazing experience seemingly meeting angels dropped down from heaven. God bless all of you.

We are doing our best to capture our carnage so FEMA can reimburse us for our damages. Our people have rocked and rolled with the punches — but we what we never expected was two haymakers from a new and inexperienced school superintendent out to prove she is smarter than FEMA, the State, and local citizenry.

The dreaded “C” word, consolidation, was put on the table on Jan. 9 for the first time in Nicholas County history. How shocking that a shivering town that has pulled itself from flood waters like a half-drowned dog may be kicked again while it’s down. In America we root for underdogs, we don’t give them the boot.

Now the superintendent and I both have Ph.D.’s, but there is a big difference between us. I’ve been humbled enough by FEMA over the past half year to readily admit I don’t know squat about FEMA’s incredibly complex and ever-changing rules and regulations. She, on the other hand, apparently believes she has “got this.”

She does not. I have a dozen great people around me, and I’m drowning in a sea of red tape. I’ve learned: Nobody understands FEMA — least of all FEMA itself. And if either FEMA or the state is telling you you’re doing a good job, you’d better put your hand on your wallet. Both are telling the superintendent just that, and she believes them.

We can’t wait to fix ourselves. As I write this, it is happening, organically. The old bank, long dilapidated, is being flipped into a daycare center; the C & S restaurant has reopened as the Oakford Diner; the old bakery near the Sculpture Garden is being recycled into the String and Bean restaurant; the Hole in the Wall Pizzeria has been rebooted; and the Rite Aid and Dollar General stores have cleaned and restocked.
New roads, a new water intake, improved water lines and millions of dollars in remediation are coming our way. We are about to get 30 new tiny, medium and large houses built and dozens of flooded homes rehabbed with major grants and volunteers.

Everyone in the state is pulling for us. We are going to put South Fork Lake back on the table and create West Virginia’s newest white water attraction on the very river that ravaged us, the Cherry. And water is going up on Hinkle Mountain and to the Cherry Hill golf course. That area will grow exponentially.

However, we have to protect our schools and all our students.

We want what FEMA and the superintendent promised us in the aftermath of the flood: restoration. We expect them to stand by their words and their missions and put back what was — our schools. If it ain’t broke … don’t break it.

The superintendent keeps talking about “data.” We all know “data” can prove or disprove anything. All data on consolidation proves that bigger is never better — especially for low-income learners.

But we are neither data nor biological specimens dipped into formaldehyde to be coldly dissected. We are human beings. We are Richwood. We will crawl back without the schools, but we will sprint back with them. We want to be the tip of the arrow of the new West Virginia.

When we get our new middle and high schools back, we will have them to draw us together and draw people to us. We KNOW Richwood will come back. It’s just a matter of faith and time. But we must keep our small family-oriented schools. They are priority No. 1 — and our heart and soul. Please share our optimism and pray for us. Richwood: the town that wouldn’t die! That’s us.
Bob Henry Baber is mayor of Richwood.