When Judy Thomas thinks of Shinnston, she remembers when her family of nine would shop downtown on Friday night among their neighbors and the bright lights of open shops down Pike Street.
Today, most people on the road drive through Shinnston on U.S. 19, which weaves across the heart of West Virginia.
Thomas and her sisters opened up the Shabby Chic Sisters shop a few years ago with the antiques they’d bought at estate sales throughout the years. Now, if you see a set of dishes, table linens, or a mysterious looking gun sighting contraption at their store, chances are good that it came from the home of someone in Shinnston.
If you stop in, they’ll tell you how much they love the town where their father grew up in Shinnston founder Levi Shinn’s log cabin. They’ll tell you how much joy they get from talking to their neighbors. And they’ll tell you about the time a group of young women came to town.
They’re discussing six students in a senior public relations class at West Virginia University who visited in the spring of 2013.
The students, on their very last class before their careers began, created a buy local campaign that left the town with momentum created by a buy local event, a downtown business map, a 182-page campaign booklet full of ideas, and more than one million media impressions—the number of estimated people who learned about the benefits of buying local in Shinnston.
“I think we had a lot of people in town that just didn’t realize how much it meant to the small business and how much small business means to our quality of life.” —Debra Herndon, Shinnston city manager
Shinnston City Manager Debra Herndon was impressed with the extensive research the students collected on the town through surveys and meetings.
The town of approximately 2,000 has had 12 new businesses open since 2008, yet the students’ research showed that it was often area residents who were unaware of what they could find in Shinnston and why it was important to look there.
“I think we had a lot of people in town that just didn’t realize how much it meant to the small business and how much small business means to our quality of life,” Herndon said.
Rita Colistra led her students through the campaign as they asked questions, bought materials, and drove. She took their calls whether at 8:00 a.m. or 11:00 p.m., asking them about the campaign’s progress and hearing about its success long after they’d finished the project.
“The change in them was phenomenal,” Colistra said. “They were fully dedicated to this community. They were not going to fail. It wasn’t about a grade; it never is. When they start with the campaign, they don’t realize how important it is until they meet the people.”
“It was about the people. It was their business. Knowing that the people were happy at the end of the day made it all worthwhile.” —Lacey Beattie
It’s something she’s witnessed in all three of her buy local campaign classes—in Shinnston, Fairmont, and Ritchie County. After the students met business owners like Judy Thomas, they transformed, working tirelessly, forgetting that certain segments of the project are even graded.
That came in part from Colistra. “I’m very passionate about this, and the passion has grown each time I’ve done this,” she said. “And I’m not going to let this go because I’ve seen the impact it can make in a community and with the students.”
Colistra’s belief in the project grew from her experience growing up in a small town.
“I’m from Rock Castle, West Virginia,” Colistra said. “It’s not on some maps. It took me 30 minutes to get to my high school by car. By bus it took longer.”
When her dad would pick her up from school, they would stop at Simmons General Store and Lavelle Shinn’s Service Station and she’d get a Coke from the old Coke coolers.
“Those things make a place,” she says. “They can make a childhood, you know? All those memories.”
Like Colistra, Lacey Beattie, the leader of the Shinnston campaign, knows about shopping locally. She’s living in her hometown of Milton, West Virginia, outside of Huntington as she saves up to make her big post-graduation move to New York City in the spring.
But it wasn’t until the campaign was over, and not even until she was asked, that she realized all of her work made her internalize that buying gifts from a local antique shop or getting lunch at the diner on the corner helps us all live in a place that looks like we imagined.
The simple message Beattie and her class partners spread was that for every $100 spent at a local business, $68 returns to the community in the form of payroll, taxes, and other investments, according to the 3/50 Project. If that money is spent at a national chain, $43 stays in the community. When money is spent online, where often no sales tax is charged, zero dollars go back to the community where you live.
It’s easy to say, but harder to do.
Beattie and her classmates found through research that area residents didn’t know about stores like Shabby Chic Sisters, Pro Care Pharmacy, Gameday restaurant, Beck’s Café, and Home Style. They didn’t know how much money they weren’t putting back into their communities.
When Buy Local Day came, some stores saw customers they hadn’t seen for a long time if at all.
“It was about the people,” Beattie said. “It was their business. Knowing that the people were happy at the end of the day made it all worthwhile.”
A former teacher from out of state, Melissa Aldridge opened the first recent retail shop, Home Style, in Shinnston four years ago and is set to open another shop there this year.
She got some ideas from the campaign to add to her many customer-outreach activities, such as her decorators club. She thinks the buy local message is being heard, and she’s helping it along. Customers who walk in to Home Style can still find near the doorway to her store a map of the downtown shops created through the campaign.
Aldridge says that when she can, she tries to shop at other local stores for her home and business.
“You can’t just say it’s smart to shop local because it’s the right thing to do for your community,” Aldridge said. “You then have to do your part to make it a place that people want to come to.”
HONK IF YOU BUY LOCAL
David Scott remembers Colistra’s class when he sees the stickers. Each bumper sticker bearing the words “Buy Local Ritchie County,” means other drivers on the road are getting the message that there are stores to browse in the county’s towns of Harrisville, Cairo, Pennsboro, and Ellenboro.
When Colistra’s first class left Ritchie County in 2011, they left placemats, inserts for shopping bags, stickers for shop windows, a Christmas shopping event, and assistance with the first business expo in the county in about 20 years.
The president of the Chamber of Commerce at the time, Scott fondly recalls Skyping with the students and watching their excitement spread.
“The success of the program started with the enthusiasm and the knowledge of Rita and the enthusiasm that the students have and the interaction that the students then had with the people in the county,” Scott said.
“It all just clicked.”
For more information on buying local, see the 3/50 Project at: the350project.net/home.html.