Marketing West Virginia

Recently, I was visiting in Pittsburgh. When I go anywhere, I scope it out on maps to orient myself, to get the feel the place. Headed to Pennsylvania, I felt I should knock another state off on my quest to visit all 50 and slip over the border to West Virginia while I was out there.

Oddly, the local Southside bookstore not only didn’t have a map of West Virginia, it didn’t have any travel books for a place only a stone’s throw away. What bodes even worse for any tourism dollars WV might hope to get from its close PA neighbors, a very helpful store clerk repeated my question twice as is to clarify what I really wanted: “You want travel books for West Virginia? …West.. Virginia?”

I really needed the help, too. Three of my close colleagues had struggled to conceal small smiles when I said I wanted to go to WV. Why take the time when I had the architecture and richness of the Carnegie museums to see? Was I actually making time for, say, the Penitentiary tour? Fair enough questions, but I make my priorities by own standards.

West Virginia, for example has 1.8 million plus inhabitants; since I come from New Hampshire, the home of Life Free or Die and the first in the nation primary, we are comparatively noisy with 1.3 million plus inhabitants. I could find time to hear what WV has to say. Besides size, New Hampshire’s high schools boast students speaking over 60 languages, a fact lost on many when they think about the state. West Virginia has an ethnic heritage page on its web sites; who thinks of WV as culturally rich? The following excerpts tell me some folks found the place from a lot farther away than Pennsylvania:

“In the early twentieth century, there were four Carpatho-Russian communities in the southwestern coalfields. Now there is only one. Carpatho-Russian immigrants came in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to work in the mines in Raleigh, McDowell, and Fayette counties and elsewhere.”

“This region is also home to the United African American Artists of West Virginia, the John Henry Center for Culture and History Exchange, the African American Arts & Heritage Academy, the Afro-Appalachian Performance Company, and the Harlem Renaissance Festival.” Search this on the page to find the answer to which region is it. “This region has the significant populations of several other ethnic groups, including Hispanic, Hungarian, and Welsh. At one time, there were Greek communities in the mining towns like in Welch and Gary; a small contemporary Greek community can be found in Bluefield. This region has a large population of people with Polish heritage. Several Asian nationalities are also present in smaller populations, including Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, and Vietnamese. ”

In fairness to my very, very well traveled and well read colleagues, who have driven the US coast to coast and railed around Europe top to bottom and east to west, West Virginia’s problem is one of national marketing. I felt one of the best places to check out what a fair outsider’s view of the state might be was to search NPR for its take on the state over the years.

The most recent story was a recipe for beans. Another one was summarized, “West Virginia’s residents are consistently ranked among the most overweight in the country, and the state budget is feeling the pinch. Now, Medicaid recipients in West Virginia have a new treatment option: Weight Watchers.” Even when they want to do well, out of towners might get in the way of a bright image for West Virginians. Then there are the countless stories on mining accidents to further discourage visitors, if not a potential influx of new residents. Do the reporters at NPR have more to learn?

So it is 60 miles southwest to Wheeling from Pittsburgh and I am still determined to see it one of these days. Wheeling’s convention bureau promises a good time and its Chamber of Commerce recommends its waterfront and revitalized downtown. I hope to report back if I ever get to go. And as much as I would have like to rely on an old fashioned book to get my information, I had to turn to the internet. I always did intend to go to the Carnegie museums :-).

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