In July of 2015, the West Virginia University Extension Service spearheaded a university-wide effort that rushed to the aid of Harpers Ferry, a town of 300 that had its booming tourism industry threatened by a catastrophic fire.
WVU President E. Gordon Gee worked closely with the WVU Extension Service Dean, Steve Bonanno, to react with the full force of the University. The resulting efforts helped the town’s business owners make plans to reconstruct their buildings and improve upon their businesses.
Recently, the rebuilding initiative garnered national attention by finishing as the runner-up for the National Association for Community Development Extension Professionals’ national “Excellence in Teamwork” award while winning the same award in the Northeast region.
According to Kelly Nix, WVU Extension Service’s community leadership development specialist, the recognition from the association confirms the project embodies the spirit of what a land-grant institution can do for the residents of its state.
“It’s amazing to see the power of collaboration and the extent of what the University as a whole can offer one community,” said Nix. “This was really the first time that we’ve worked at this level to pull all the pieces together, and it gives us a powerful framework to build from to assist other communities around West Virginia.”
In addition to WVU Extension faculty and staff, faculty from the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design and College of Law all contributed their expertise to continue to help the town.
One of those people is Katherine Garvey, director of the Land Use Law Clinic at the WVU College of Law.
“Faculty and staff from WVU have been working closely with community leaders on long term development projects such as addressing dilapidated buildings and fostering entrepreneurship,” she said. “Responding to the fire in Harpers Ferry with these same professionals was a natural extension of the good work being done outside of Morgantown.”
One of the first teams to arrive on site were engineers Hota GangaRao and P.V. Vijay from the Statler College’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. According to GangaRao, they were able to determine that damage to the structural members was minimal and the historic portions of the structures under fire could be restored to original load capacity at nominal cost.
The next step in the process was a community meeting that took place in September. After the meeting, a plan was developed and work began.
Charlie Yuill, associate professor and chair of the landscape architecture program, jumped at the chance to support the community during the rebuilding process.
“This was a great opportunity to help one of West Virginia’s most historic and visited communities,” he said.
With the help of aerial photos taken by an unmanned, computer-guided aircraft, Yuill developed an intricate concept plan for repairing fire-damaged outdoor areas and enhancing the streetscape of Harpers Ferry’s main thoroughfare, High Street. The plan served as the basis for a planning grant the city submitted to the West Virginia Department of Transportation. The grant request is currently under review by WVDOT.
Major components of the plan include sidewalk improvements to enhance appearance and special needs accessibility; replacement of failing concrete curbing with period stone curbing; replacement of non-period fencing with period wrought iron; improved storm-water management systems; and the development of new crosswalks to reduce vehicle and pedestrian conflicts.
While the work continues, Nix said that reacting to a tragedy is only the first step in a process where the collective strength of the University can truly be showcased.
“One of the most important lessons learned is that we have to build upon the strongly reactive model and create a proactive one,” she said. “The biggest lesson here is that we’re greater than the sum of our parts, and we have to strive to make our knowledge, our services and our programs more accessible to West Virginians who could benefit from our united help.”
Nix added that by building off the momentum from this project and the partnerships formed, WVU can continue to improve communities across the state by better equipping and connecting with those living in them.
The WVU Extension Service provides educational opportunities to local communities through offices in all 55 West Virginia counties. WVU Extension Service’s programs are accomplished in partnership with individuals, families, businesses, civic groups and governmental organizations statewide and throughout the nation.
To learn more about WVU Extension programs, visit www.ext.wvu.edu, or contact your local office of the WVU Extension Service.
CONTACT: Zane Lacko, WVU Extension Service
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