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Seeds in Good Ground



Written by Diana Mazzella
Photographed by Scott Lituchy

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There’s a story of a farmer who flung handfuls of seeds into a field. The seeds that rested in good ground gave returns far beyond their initial value. As a state, we have a lot of decisions to face when investing our resources. We want every dollar to count. This makes WVU a good investment. The University turns each public dollar it receives into $40. To the right of the page, you’ll see many other translations of that investment, including an impact of 45,500 jobs. But what does this mean for people? To Doug Hylton, it means he’s getting his town back. For Tiffany Newcomb, it means she has a job in her home state that is in turn bringing jobs to others. To Caroline Hamrick, it means she’s on her way to becoming an engineer. As much as WVU has a direct positive influence on jobs and the economy, it also has a vital role in creating the things you can’t put a price on.


On the streets of Ronceverte, WV, Doug Hylton used to sell bottles of pop to earn enough money to buy the comic books in a storefront down the street. Twenty-six years after college, and a career in the US Air Force later, Hylton returned home.

And the community was mostly gone. Families had left. Many of the elderly had died. The children had grown up and moved away. The town of his childhood with multiple pharmacies and groceries had mostly blighted storefronts and homes, courtesy of floods, neglect, and a new interstate highway.

Hylton, the former part-time town administrator, and the other inhabitants of the town of nearly 1,800 tried to jumpstart redevelopment, but it wasn’t happening. Then they got their last chance ten years ago, he says.

A group of professors and students from West Virginia University visited. They were skilled in design, public policy, redevelopment, architecture, and community recreation. They created a plan from their visit that identified the town’s strengths and weaknesses, something they’ve done since 1997 in more than 40 towns and counties.

Man standing next to sign

Doug Hylton shows off his hometown of Ronceverte, WV, where a visit from the WVU Community Design Team helped to spur the town’s redevelopment.

Hylton and the rest of the town took that plan and haven’t turned back. Ronceverte now has a historic commission, is a member of Main Street West Virginia, and formed Ronceverte Development Corp. Millions of dollars in grant funding later, they got 18 new businesses, they’ve redeveloped ten commercial buildings with 15 retail spaces and ten apartments in the downtown district, and have made a walking trail and a skate park.

“Every time someone contacts me about redevelopment of their community, the first thing I ask is “Has the WVU Community Design Team been to your community?’” Hylton said. “And if not, I try to help get that done.

“Every time someone contacts me about redevelopment of their community, the first thing I ask is ‘Has the WVU Community Design Team been to your community?’”


Tiffany Newcomb followed the script for young people in America. Growing up in Beckley, WV, she went on to college at West Virginia University. With her mechanical and aerospace engineering dual degree in hand, she went to work for Boeing.

But Newcomb wanted more. She wanted to be an important part of a company that made a difference in the world, and she wanted to move back to her home state. Then she met Chris Yura, founder of SustainU, the recycled and American-made apparel company he launched in 2009 from the WVU Business Incubator.

Before the incubator, Yura and his colleagues had a great idea, but not the business background, office space, and design skills to turn it into a reality.

Tiffany Newcomb

Tiffany Newcomb was able to move back to her home state after she was hired by SustainU, a company in Morgantown that formed in the WVU Business Incubator.

“I think it was crucial,” Newcomb said of the incubator. “It was vital. They were given the resources to make these great ideas tangible realities, not just for our company, but for this state and for job creation in America.”

Newcomb, 28, vice president of business operations, is one of 11 full-time employees at SustainU, along with nine part-time workers. But SustainU’s business has affected more than the young West Virginians it directly employs who grew up in places like Shinnston, White Sulphur Springs, Kingwood, and Morgantown. Mills in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee have been able to hire back and retain dozens of workers who were let go or faced insecure futures as manufacturing jobs went overseas.

This fall, the company began offering their product in Eastern Mountain Sports retail locations and has already provided clothing to Ford Motor Co., Boy Scouts of America, the Bonnaroo music festival, and the US Armed Forces base exchanges.

“A lot of people are from here, their families are from here, and they want to stay and give back to the communities that made them who they are,” she said.

“It was vital. They were given the resources to make these great ideas tangible realities, not just for our company, but for this state and for job creation in America.”


Caroline Hamrick was backseat driving, and it was working. As the eyes and ears of her robotics team, she told their robot’s driver how to avoid obstacles and reach a basketball that the robot could then throw through a hoop for the win.

Caroline Hamrick

Caroline Hamrick still goes to White Hall on WVU’s campus every week to mentor area high school students as part of Mountaineer Area RoboticS.

This was her big moment at a robotics competition this year. But it had taken years to achieve. In eighth grade, the Morgantown native was pestering her older brother, Scott, about where he disappeared to all the time. He said it was a robotics team, but she didn’t believe him, until she tagged along to the Mountaineer Area RoboticS (MARS) team run by WVU faculty. By the end of her high school years, Hamrick had become the robot’s guiding hand and leader of the electrical team that built its innards.

“MARS has given me the confidence to go into engineering,” the 18-year-old said. “It totally changed the path of my life.”

In those four years, she learned how to fix crossed electrical signals and feed power to the motors. But her biggest challenge was more personal. Hamrick had long loved math. In a family of engineers, she was both creative and analytical. But she was dyslexic and was steered toward subjects like art that were visual but not as difficult for her as math. She had to face a choice: do what was easier or follow her heart.

“MARS has given me the confidence to go into engineering,” the 18-year-old said. “It totally changed the path of my life.”

Now the WVU engineering major is taking her introductory calculus class. She wants to go to graduate school and make robots. Because of MARS, she discovered within the time limits of competition that the wild ideas the team came up with could quickly turn into solutions, and one day engineering solutions could change a life.

And so she was backseat driving in Pittsburgh at the FIRST organization’s regional robotics championship. She guided, repaired, and explained.

And then, they won.