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WVU students collaborate with Ravenswood

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Michael Ihle, mayor of Ravenswood, says the town will benefit from input by a team of West Virginia University graduate students. Michael Ihle, mayor of Ravenswood, says the town will benefit from input by a team of West Virginia University graduate students.

Government leaders around Ravenswood have had their share of squabbles, but certainly can agree on this. The Ohio River town should be striving to meet its potential and have a brighter future.

Mayor Michael Ihle says the best way to achieve those goals is to collaborate with those who can enter the discussion without preconceived ideas. Therefore, he's looking forward to, "Bring on the Mountaineers."

Starting this fall, Ravenswood will be the focal point of a two-year, four-semester project led by graduate students in West Virginia University's Department of Administration. The four-step process is comprised of Governance Capacity Building, Mobilizing and Dialog, Planning and Deliberation concluding in 2015 with Project Development and Implementation. 

"I think by virtue of having a team come in from the outside with no agendas, Ravenswood government and all of us will be able to unite behind an idea," said Ihle, who has endured recent discussion of a "no confidence" vote by some members of Council.

Assistant Professor Margaret Stout directs the program.

"The thing that I think that all West Virginia small cities and towns struggle with is a lack of capacity in general," she said. "What we hope to do is help them build their capacity both in the sense on governing and administering. The second benefit is really engaging citizens in creating a shared vision and a sense of responsibility for helping to implement that vision."

As an end result, Stout hopes Ravenswood will become positioned to move forward with the documentation and plans to launch selected projects.

Stout's group had its introduction with the city of Moundsville.

"They gave us a lot of ideas for the city," said Deanna Hess, city manager, who noted the students took their project seriously. "They were very helpful. They gave us a clear vision of what would be good and what would be bad. Hopefully, our comprehensive plan will be ready by June of 2014."

The Marshall County city is presently delving into land use possibilities with WVU Law School students.

Ihle, 27, says he's excited to get the procedure started in Ravenswood.

"Each semester has a different theme," Ihle explained. "It's a mutually beneficial thing. This is as much for the students as it is for us. They are removed from the situation and can step back and look at the big picture."

Don't expect overnight results, according to Ihle. Although the early steps involve considerable questioning of city officials such as member of the Ravenswood Development Authority and stakeholders in the community, he says the focus will develop into "doing as opposed to talking." 

Involvement will be essential to the project's success. And Ihle says that includes members of Council.

"We need people to be receptive to the team, take the surveys, keep their eyes and ears open, come to the meetings, bring their ideas, become involved in each step in the process, help us make this plan and do the projects," the mayor said. "I want the whole city to be behind this because it has to. That's how this has to work — period."

Fall semester work by the students will incorporate WVU's First Impressions program. That includes introductory training and discussion of the community's wants and needs. The second stage concentrates on exchanges to determine which projects Ravenswood should take on.

"We want to have open discussions and let people know that we care about their ideas," he continued. "We want to know what's going on and we want you to help us serve you."

Third semester goals are centered on providing technical assistance so that community leaders will be prepared to draft a comprehensive plan. That's followed by the final stage of project development and implementation.

"The idea is that by the time they're done, we'll have the capacity to function cohesively on projects," said Ihle, who noted the WVU students will be spending weekends in Ravenswood. "We want to empower people to improve the community."

Ihle concedes the process won't be a glamorous, but says it will be worth the effort in the decades to come.

"The outgrowth of this is that Ravenswood will be a city that is a better place to live and work, more attractive to businesses and young professionals. I would love to be able to steal the title from Lewisburg and say that we're the ‘Coolest Small Town in America.'"