‘Neighbors’ initiative has plans for District 4

PARKERSBURG – Portions of the 4th council district may not have the best reputation in the city, but a coalition of neighbors aims to change that.

“We want it to be the place people want to live in Parkersburg, to be honest,” said Councilwoman Kim Coram, who represents District 4, which is in the east-central part of the city and includes land on both sides of the Little Kanawha River.

The group has evolved over the last year or so from a Neighborhood Watch to a broader effort to address issues like property conditions and children’s safety. Coram now simply refers to the group, which meets at noon on the second Tuesday of each month at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, as “Neighbors.”

“People bring their lunches, and we talk about issues, and we plan real change,” she said.

The effort started in 2013 when the Rev. Marjorie Bevans, rector at Good Shepherd, reached out to city officials to deal with recurring problems.

“We had kids climbing on the roof at the church, and they were doing various things, small acts of vandalism,” Bevans said.

Some residents were also drinking openly and abusing drugs, she said, so Bevans was hoping to see police drive through the neighborhood more regularly. One way the church tried to facilitate it was by making its wireless Internet available so that officers could do paperwork in their cruisers while parked there.

“After hours, our guys are up there quite a bit,” Parkersburg Police Chief Joe Martin said.

As Bevans brought up other issues in the neighborhood, she and Coram began to meet more often until it developed into a regular occurrence.

Martin has an officer attend the meetings.

“Ninety percent of the time, the public looks to us to solve the problem and not be a part of the solution” themselves, he said. “It’s a great initiative. We embrace it because they want to be involved, and that’s a good thing.”

In September, a Little Free Library stand, where books can be borrowed and shared, was dedicated at the church. A community garden has been established behind the house of worship.

As the group looks at ways to revitalize the neighborhood and create a safe walking path for children going from Jefferson Elementary to the Boys and Girls Club, more individuals and entities are coming to the table. Among them are four more neighborhood churches, Jefferson Principal Allen Laugh and the Mid-Ohio Valley Transit Authority, which is building a maintenance garage on Plum Street.

“I think the entire community should be proud … for the fact that there are so many people working together,” Laugh said.

Students going to the Boys and Girls Club of Parkersburg from Jefferson often travel the three-block distance in a transit authority bus. While Laugh said there is an educational component to the arrangement as well as safety considerations, Coram said she and others envision a designated safe route, showing children the way by a literal blue line painted on the sidewalk and artful signage.

“We’re talking about walking school buses after school,” Bevans said.

The condition of homes in the neighborhood is another concern, and Coram attributes some of that to the fact that 60 percent of the residences in the district are rentals. A number are run-down and appeared on a list of structures targeted for demolition by the city.

Good Shepherd member Larry James grew up in the neighborhood and says it looked a lot different in the late ’50s and early ’60s.

“The neighborhood was mostly what I would call blue-collar factory workers,” he said. “The neighborhood was very well kept up, very well maintained.”

Coram said she’s concerned about what happens after the dilapidated houses are razed. Toward that end, the church and the group are considering ways to acquire property should it become available, so they have more of a say in what comes next.

“We want a planned community. We do not want new slums built,” she said.

While Coram said she doesn’t want to see anyone displaced, she would like to see the percentage of rentals decrease, so there’s a more stable population in the area.

“We want to foster more home ownership in the area so we have a different mix of people,” she said.

In addition to the officials and organizations involved with the Neighbors program, individual residents are welcome at the meetings as well.

“It’s open to anybody that wants to help make a difference,” Coram said.