RICHWOOD -- Like many downtowns tucked into the hills of West Virginia, Richwood's has seen better days.
Its Main Street storefronts bustled with activity during the mining boom of the last century. But as the mines closed in the 1970s and <#146>80s, so too did the stores, leaving nearly two dozen brick shells to decay along the now-quiet highway.
But for the first time in decades, those storefronts are alive again as part of the sixth annual Create West Virginia Conference taking place this week.
"I love it -- it's shades of older times," Richwood Mayor Bob Johnson said as he watched people milling about Main Street following the conference's Grand Opening Celebration Thursday.
Create West Virginia is an independent, grassroots organization launched by Vision Shared more than six years ago. It tries to improve local economies in the state by building creative communities, companies and centers of learning geared toward an "innovation economy."
The group held prior conferences at large venues like the Charleston House Ramada Inn, Huntington Civic Center or Stonewall Resort. But for this conference -- the theme of which is "The Future" -- organizers decided to take their creativity and innovation message to a place that needed it most.
"Bringing the conference on 'The Future' to a place like Richwood is a real leap of faith," conference director Rebecca Kimmons said.
"There's a lot of grieving in Richwood," she said.
While the coal industry is gone, Kimmons said the town still has strong timber and hardwood companies that have helped keep things afloat. She said the available storefronts and existing infrastructure, all situated in a picturesque Appalachian setting, could be an attractive setting for a young, creative entrepreneur.
However, she said the first step is to get people to open their minds to the opportunities.
"Basically, what we have to do is convince people it's possible," Kimmons said.
The goal of the conference is to show people that any rural small town or city in West Virginia can be transformed into a modern hub with its own unique atmosphere and amenities. To do that, organizers decided to transform the empty storefronts into an artisan village, with each shop showcasing a different entrepreneur or idea.
Unfortunately, many of those buildings hadn't been used in decades, and some were filled with equipment and furnishings that had been touched only by dust since the owners closed shop.
But that didn't stop Richwood.
In September, scores of volunteers began work down the Main Street row of tumbledown shops to clear furniture, scour floors and do whatever it took to get them ready for business once again.
"I've never seen people work so hard at scrubbing floors and cleaning windows as our people have to spruce up Richwood," said Nancy Leffingwell, executive director of the Richwood Chamber of Commerce.