Bluefield West Virginia Economic Development Authority Hosts USDA Rural Development Staff 

Jim Spencer, Executive Director of the Bluefield West Virginia Economic Development Authority (BEDA), has a vision. He comes from a background in community planning and economic development and spent decades as a county administrator in neighboring Virginia before joining BEDA. He has been a stakeholder and partner of the Southern West Virginia Community Network since its inception. His vision is that communities around the Southern West Virginia Community Network will tap into the resources that his organization has created. With this vision in mind, BEDA recently hosted a tour for local Rural Development staff to highlight how the organization is already making a difference in West Virginia communities. 

photo of class in session

Local Entrepreneurs Ansel and Gabi Ponder present their idea for short-term lodging targeting area ATV Trail visitors and families.

The tour began at the Bluefield Arts Center, a former municipal building constructed in 1924, and current Rural Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) project. Following an introduction, local entrepreneurs Ansel and Gabi Ponder pitched a project seeking funding to kick-start a community revitalization and short-term rental housing enterprise targeting local ATV trail riders and outdoor recreational visitors. 

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Representatives from BEDA, USDA Rural Development, and local entrepreneurs Ansel and Gabi Ponder during their visit to Alorica's Intuit Service Center.

The tour then visited Alorica’s Intuit Service Center, which receives approximately 6 percent of customer service calls supporting entrepreneurs and small business clients using Intuit’s QuickBooks products in North America. A highlight of this tour showcased employee and public spaces within the facility. Alorica’s many community partnerships with BEDA include providing space to host pop-up vendors and open houses during BEDA’s Small Business Saturday events. Small Business Saturday recently included a youth entrepreneur event that attracted seven young business owners under 18 years old. Following this visit, a working lunch from local restaurant David’s Downtown (on the ground floor of the Bluefield Arts Center) allowed time to introduce the Rural Partners Network and other USDA opportunities to area business owners. 

After lunch, the group toured the Commercialization Station, a 60,000 square foot former railway freight house which has been converted into a research and maker space for local businesses. Rural Development staff met with Bruce Mutter and Heather Williams, who shared some of the proprietary work that their corporation, The Center for Applied Research and Technology (CART, Inc.), is doing. CART, Inc., is a non-profit corporation working with entrepreneurs on projects utilizing carbon from locally sourced coal.

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BEDA Executive Director Jim Spencer shares his vision for future development along Interstate 77 in Mercer County.

Bluefield is thinking regionally about intertwining past and present: Their focus is to become a regional hub focused on carbon technologies and development, particularly building materials, batteries, and similar products. This focus has led to opportunity closer to the interstate, where Spencer and BEDA Administrative & Marketing Assistant Faith Blackwell are optimistic that property along I-77’s Exit 1 offers considerable opportunity. For instance, Omnis Building Technology is constructing a 135,000 square foot manufacturing facility on a portion of this land. Plans call for another site nearby which will host a food truck park, allowing a quick stop for visitors to stretch their legs and grab a bite to eat. This will boost visibility and opportunity for local entrepreneurs, especially those in BEDA’S Food Truck Incubator Program. The unique incubator program is funded by a USDA Rural Business Development Grant. The food truck park is still in its conceptual phase, but funding is being sought to begin development. 

BEDA’s vision is an example of what incremental change and regional cooperation can bring to the Rural Partners Network. “Would you expect to find all this in Bluefield?” asked Spencer, as the tour of his agency’s projects and partners in the community concluded. He left his group with a simple, but clear message, “Everyone gets stuck trying to think outside of the box, but don’t put yourself in the box to begin with!” 

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