In this past, I’ve written on general reasons for preserving cemeteries and historic structures, but this time, I think I’ll focus on Mason County.
Based on the latest census information, there are roughly 26,800 people in Mason County. 11,500 of those are employed, roughly 850 who are classified as unemployed but seeking work, and a mix of children, retirees, and those not seeking work. However, there are only 4,000 jobs. That means that over 7,000 people leave Mason County for work. This is, sadly, a common trend across our state right now. But how did we get here, and is there a way to fix it?
With the recent bankruptcy of M&G Polymers, Mason County has lost yet another major employer. In recent years, we’ve also seen the closure of Philip Sporn Power Plant. Some large employers left in the county are Pleasant Valley Hospital, AEP, Lakin Nursing Home, Lakin Prison, Wal-Mart, Bob’s Market, ICL (formerly AKZO), and the county school system.
Historically, Mason County had a very diverse economy. The Bend Area had salt furnaces, barrel factories, and sawmills. There were shipyards at Letart, Mason, Point Pleasant, and Leon. Large farms were scattered around the county, and many of our people were employed on the river. Nevertheless, as technology advanced, many of these jobs became obsolete. What did we do when those jobs left? We adapted! Rather than beat a dead horse, we switched our focus to new industries, such as electricity, chemical, and metal production. Those new businesses have lasted us almost a century, but now we’re losing those jobs to improving technology as well. It is time to adapt once again.
With West Virginia’s poor business environment, I wouldn’t put all of my eggs in the “bring in new manufacturers” basket. Instead, I think that we need to focus on another sector entirely, that of heritage tourism. It has worked for others, and it can work for us. After all, Point Pleasant is one of only four main western entries in West Virginia, with the others being Huntington, Parkersburg, and Wheeling. Those three all have interstate highways and large populations to support massive economies. We simply don’t, so we should focus on something that sets us apart. That is our rich history.
Our history stretches back to the early Native Americans, recounts fierce frontier battles, follows the story of daring industrial entrepreneurs, and is stained with tears of tragedy. Currently, we market two things for tourists: Tu-Endie-Wei and the Mothman. That works for September and October, but what about the other 10 months? There’s plenty of other events and places to utilize.
However, another part of heritage tourism, probably the more important part, is having something that makes people stay more than a few hours. Many towns have resolved this by restoring their historic district and filling it with businesses such as restaurants, antique stores, boutiques, art galleries, or gift stores. All of those are places where people will visit just because it’s fun to browse, and in the process, they’ll probably end up buying something. Of course, the restaurants come in handy for people from out of town who can’t go home and cook a meal.
Within the last year, I’ve been happy to see that this idea is becoming more popular in both our community and state. The ball is rolling, now we just have to keep it that way.
Statistics for this article from the US census Bureau. The next meeting of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society will be the week of Nov. 20 with time, date and location to be announced.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society.