It was a primary Election Day that in a lot of ways, looked like it did pre-COVID in West Virginia. Voters in all 55 counties voted at schools, churches and community centers. They voted for state senators, city council members, judges, school board members and congresspeople. 

Many voted ahead of time, thanks to widespread early voting. Of course, lots and lots of West Virginians didn’t vote at all.

Thinking that elections are – or should be – more about West Virginians and our families, we at Mountain State Spotlight again fanned out across our state to see what our neighbors were thinking about.

From Chester to Fayetteville, here is some of what we heard.

Remembering the vibrancy of Chester’s past

By Douglas Soule

CHESTER — Robin Lowers grabbed the pack of gum and hit some keys on the cash register. 

“That’s a dollar,” she said. Lowers accepted the bill from a customer, pushing the gum and receipt across the counter. 

It was a fairly normal day for the Citizens Drug Store, except for the several polling stations open close by. But Lowers, a store cashier, wasn’t filling out a ballot this primary. She said she was too disenchanted with the choices this year. There was too much mudslinging between the candidates, she said, and she doesn’t believe any of them will bring in long-lasting businesses to Chester, a small town at the tip of the Northern Panhandle.

Robin Lowers, at Citizen Drug Store in Chester. Photo by Douglas Soule

That doesn’t mean there weren’t issues on her mind. The one at the forefront: a lack of activities to keep the area’s teenagers busy. Disenchanted or not, she hopes the leaders picked this election season prioritize bringing in businesses and activities that will fill in that void. She’s looking ahead, since three of her four grandkids in the area are still in elementary school. 

That wouldn’t have been a worry for her decades ago, Lowers said. She grew up right across the Ohio River in East Liverpool, Ohio. In her youth, she’d walk to hang out in Chester’s downtown.

A local landmark in Chester. Photo by Douglas Soule

“It’s hard to envision it [now],” she said. Whether it be movie theaters, antique stores or candy shops, many of those businesses are now gone.

If she was a young adult in East Liverpool now, Lowers doesn’t think she’d have a reason to go to Chester. She says this problem of small downtowns contracting is one that she’s seen beyond just Chester.

“All these towns have just slowly died over time,” she said. 

Hope for the arts in Beckley

By Quenton King

BECKLEY — Jerry Rose was walking on Main Street passing out flyers for an upcoming dance recital when he saw a former dance student from decades ago. Standing on the corner outside of a building that still houses the city’s first elevator, the two pointed out other nearby historic landmarks.

“Main Street used to be so vibrant,” Rose said. “It was a piece of Americana.”

Rose owns a dance theater in Beckley with his wife. The son of a coal miner, he toured professionally for years around the country and even in Russia.  

Jerry Rose, photographed in Beckley. Photo by Quenton King

He says Beckley has a strong tradition and passion for the arts. “Some of the finest visual artists paint here.”  

But many have left.

“Talent loss,” he said, is one of the biggest challenges facing Beckley. “People who are gifted… I was guilty of the same thing. But I had to go. I had to go and be me. Then I came back to spread what I did to others.”

Eventually Rose sat on a park bench that he noted is named after Madrith Chambers, a Black activist and former councilmember who recently passed away. “So many people are gone,” he said softly. 

He pointed over at two trash cans. That’s the spot where he used to wait for the bus when he was 5 years old, before they replaced the road with a small park. 

“Let me tell you, I did shows for those people when I was 5. I sang and I danced. I didn’t know how to dance, but I did it,” he said. 

And while there are challenges, Rose is still optimistic about his community.

“I have hope for Beckley,” he said. “I have hope for myself. I’m only 80 years old and I can’t wait for my future.” 

Eying beer’s potential in Fairmont

By Amelia Ferrell Knisely

FAIRMONT — The Rambling Root in Fairmont has a vibe — a feel-good, laid back, vibe in a restaurant and brewery where one of the beers is called the “Fairmonster” and there’s a burger with pineapple and bacon on it. The man behind its 65-cent wing night and ever-changing homemade brew list is DJ Cassell, a 36-year-old who opened The Rambling Root five years ago.

Cassell’s business wasn’t immune from pandemic-induced hardships; the restaurant had to shut down twice because of COVID and for a time could only offer to-go food and beer growlers.

“We still haven’t recovered, and we still aren’t hitting our 2018 numbers even with all the restrictions off,” Cassell said. “But, it’s picking up.”

DJ Cassell, behind the bar at the Rambling Root in Fairmont. Photo by Amelia Ferrell Knisely

As he’s working to build back up his business – amid sky-high food prices – he’d like state legislators to help out local brewers across the state. Cassell sees brewing as an integral part of the state’s tourism push.

Eliminating restrictive laws — like capping the alcohol percentage allowed in brews — coupled with passing bills that would promote distribution are essential to building a thriving brewery scene in the Mountain State, Cassell said. A few years ago, the West Virginia Craft Brewers Guild spoke out against Gov. Jim Justice’s proposed income tax repeal, which would have increased the beer barrel tax by 431% on barrels brewed at local breweries.

“Brewing in West Virginia is fairly young … just because we’re doing well doesn’t mean you can take advantage of us,” Cassell said.

Cassell voted early in the morning on primary Election Day. He is active in his community as The Rambling Root hosts fundraisers for local schools, the humane society and more.

Downtown Fairmont. Photo by Amelia Ferrell Knisely

He’d like to see his local officials work on making Fairmont a place people want to stop – whether it’s for a quick bite for those traveling north to Morgantown or a destination small town in West Virginia. And, he’d like to see a focus on building up Fairmont as an affordable and family-friendly area in order to attract young adults to stay.

“We have a really awesome opportunity here to get young people into Fairmont, and I don’t think [elected officials] are capitalizing on it,” Cassell said.

Weighing growth with affordability in Fayetteville

By Ian Karbal

FAYETTEVILLE — Debra Laird arrived masked and early at the Memorial building near downtown Fayetteville to vote in the Democratic primary.

Laird, 69, fell in love with Fayetteville in the ‘70s after leaving her hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to attend school in West Virginia. She met her husband, who was raised in the area, and they settled down and raised their children.

“It’s a family-friendly community,” Laird said. “People care about the community.”

Debra Laird, photographed in Fayetteville. Photo by Ian Karbal

Over the years, Laird put her love for the community into action. A retired English teacher, she was the director of the local Chamber of Commerce for a few years in the 1990s, and once served on the Bridge Day Committee.

Downtown Fayetteville. Photo by Ian Karbal

Now, she sees others like her coming to Fayetteville. Tourism has been booming, spurred along by the recent national park designation for the New River Gorge. The newcomers have fallen in love with the area, and settled down. This, Laird says, is both a blessing and one of the community’s biggest challenges. Home prices have skyrocketed, and many houses are being bought by renters who plan to list them on Airbnb.

“All of them are important,” she said of the races on the ballot. “[Voting is] my civic duty. I love this community.”

Ian Karbal is a Report for America corps member, and the state government watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.

Quenton King is a native West Virginian, born and raised in Charles Town in the Eastern Panhandle. He previously worked as a policy analyst for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and the National...

Amelia Ferrell Knisely is a Report for America Corps member who covers poverty. A native of Rand in Kanawha County, she started her career in her home state then served as editor of The Contributor in...

Douglas Soule is a Report for America corps member who covers business and economic development. A Bridgeport native, he worked as an intern at the Charleston Gazette-Mail. He has served as editor-in-chief...