“People think (West Virginia’s) greatest export is coal, but it’s not. It’s people — people are our greatest export, and I want to stop that.”
That is what Tighe Bullock tells Evan Sanford in this episode of “Inside Our Towns.”
As you’ll learn from the interview, Tighe (pronounced ‘tie’) began swinging a hammer and fixing things as a teenager on a summer job. It was fun. Now he’s on a grown-up mission, still swinging hammers but also brandishing accounting and law degrees, toward revitalizing the Elk City neighborhood in Charleston, West Virginia. So far, Tighe has helped restore 10 historic buildings and create more than a dozen new businesses that have added some 80 new jobs to the area.
Tighe, who is 32, also serves on town council in his hometown of Thurmond, West Virginia.
I first learned of Tighe and the work that he and his family are doing in the Elk City neighborhood in Charleston in the “Our Towns” HBO documentary. I had the chance to follow up on his story for Our Towns here, and check in again on the new distillery he was launching in the middle of the pandemic for Craftsmanship Quarterly here.
Evan and Tighe catch up on what’s new in Elk City since the documentary was filmed. They also discuss West Virginia’s greatest assets and exports. Tighe reflects on the story of artist Charly Jupiter Hamilton, a Charleston legend, and his stunning mural, which has become a focal point of Elk City. The mural, and Charly, are immortalized in the HBO documentary by filmmakers Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan. We have written about them here, and here, and here.
We provide the Otter.ai-generated transcript below mainly as a guide to listening to the actual discussion — and with awareness that it contains typos and will differ in some word-by-word details from what you may hear for yourself. The time-stamp numbers you see are roughly cued to the portions of the “Inside Our Towns” episode.
Evan Sanford 00:07
Hi there and welcome to this edition of Inside Our Towns. My name is Evan Sanford and I’m a contributor for the Our Towns Civic Foundation and also the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce in Redlands, California. Now to our guest today, Tighe Bullock is a redeveloper and lawyer in West Virginia, who has spent the last 15 years restoring historic buildings and providing mixed use space for local businesses and tenants. He’s helped create over 80 permanent jobs through more than 15 businesses, while restoring 10 historic buildings in Charleston. Tighe serves on town council in his hometown of Thurmond, West Virginia. And unlike me, he’s an avid outdoor enthusiast whitewater raft guide, ski instructor, climber and hiker. Tighe, thank you so much for being with us today.
Tighe Bullock 00:54
Thanks for having me, Evan; it’s a pleasure.
Evan Sanford 00:56
For our listeners, they might remember your name, because the last time they saw you was in the HBO documentary called our towns. So just bring us up to speed on what you’ve been up to, and what’s been going on in your town.
Tighe Bullock 01:10
And what’s been going on in the world. And definitely in our neck of the woods here in Charleston, West Virginia, we’ve, we’ve obviously experienced a global pandemic. And that’s obviously affected a lot of things in everybody’s lives. But things are feeling like they’re starting to get a little bit back to normal if there if there is such a, such a thing as a post-pandemic normal. But in terms of specifics, we’ve opened the new 7000 square foot printing shop that another business another couple jobs in the neighborhood, we’ve opened a new little cocktail restaurant down the street. It’s got all kinds of interesting wooden pieces in it because we actually had a hard time sourcing wood after during the pandemic. And so we actually started cutting and making a lot of our own. And and we opened up a distillery of our own and one of our historic buildings. And we open that about 10 months ago, and we just been riding that tide.
Evan Sanford 02:06
Now let’s talk more about your background and how you got into what you do. It doesn’t just happen overnight. Because again, you’ve been connected to Our Towns that our little orbit here, just remind us how you got into what you do.
Tighe Bullock 02:20
I think I was about 13. When I first started doing this work, I’m almost 33 now. And so I think it’s been going on 20 years. But we Well, I used to be really big into sports, I used to kick for the football team and play soccer and wrestle and ran track. And then I got a summer job on a construction crew when I was about 13-14 got a work permit and start making money during the summer times. And that was that seemed to be a lot more fun than, than sports, different different kinds of fun. But that’s what kind of got me into this line of work. And I found that I really enjoy working with my hands. I think spatially I think I like I can kind of see how things come together and connect and how they have to come together and connect for them to work right. And I kind of discovered a small talent in it kind of awakened something in me. And here we are 20 years later, and lots of jobs under our belts to lots of cool projects.
Evan Sanford 03:20
Your hometown essentially became a ghost town, and there’s five people there now. What have you been doing to try to remedy that and replicate your experience and try to bring back people like you to save their hometown?
Tighe Bullock 03:40
That’s, I find that to be the toughest question. And I think about that every day. I’m on city council in my hometown, as I said, I believe civic responsibilities. It’s a duty and it’s a responsibility, participate in or town, participate in our town, you know, in some way or another even if it’s not an elected representative capacity. It can be in a volunteer capacity, it can be in many different facets, do something, you know, figure out what that thing is figure out what that niche is and help fill that gap. But then, also, I think Thurman is a unique place in the sense that it was a coal town that kind of sprung up in the middle of nowhere and the rail lines went to it. And as I said it’s kind of a great, it’s great example of boom and bust extraction cycles. It’s it is a it’s almost a a parable or a moral of a story of what happens if you don’t take good care If you’re if you don’t diversify, if you don’t seek the next iteration of your town. And so in some ways, that’s that’s very sad. And, and I see that. But in some ways, it’s also it’s a call, that’s an inspiration to, to do what you can and what town that you live in and where you are. And we don’t have to have big grandiose ideas or projects, we don’t have to have million dollar $10 million projects. I think that incremental growth, what’s the what’s the smallest best thing you can do? Do that thing, and then do the next smallest spec best thing. And eventually, you might find yourself actually, you know, gaining some traction and making some difference. We don’t have to master plans. They’re very important. You know, we do need those things. But at the same time, take an assessment of what you have, what are your assets? You know, I’m an accountant. So I look at what are our liabilities, what are our assets, taking account of what your assets are, and leverage those assets. You know, not everyone needs to be a Pigeon Forge, not everyone needs to be Ashville. We can we can discern and we can distill certain components of those things from from these towns, but at the same time, be your own town, find what makes you unique, what, what sets you apart, and exhibit that to the world and show people that that’s what that’s what makes your character that’s what that’s your c’est quoi. And and I think it’s it’s less difficult. It’s very difficult still, but it’s less difficult than I think many people think it is.
Evan Sanford 07:01
What you’ve talked about is great advice for those in their communities across this country to take a step forward, take on additional responsibility, and do what you’re doing and revitalize their own community. you’ve engaged in many projects that do just that, can you talk about some of the projects that you’ve been involved with, and maybe the first one that you did, why it was so transformational and why you’ve continued to do it since.
Tighe Bullock 07:29
The first one I remember really being kind of taken aback by was Kinship Goods, which was a local business that they specialize in kind of fun, West Virginia themed T shirts and accoutrement. And when we first built their space over here, about a week or two after they opened, and I’ve been working down here for about 10 years before that, and when they first then I started seeing young people walking around the neighborhood. And that was honestly a shock to me, I saw people my age, even younger walking around. And my first thought was, Are you lost? You know, do you need some direction somewhere? And then I thought, Oh, wait, Kinship just opened. And I said that was the first one that I remember thinking man. There’s a there is there’s a need for this. And there’s a tangible visible aspect of this. That is a game changer. And then since then, we’ve done a lot of great projects. We’ve, we did a children’s theater, we did Books and Brews, which is a great locally themed pizza and sandwich shop. We’ve done Eco Lit which is a 7000 square foot printing press shop. We did base camp, which is a 800 square foot printing press shop. There’s a lot of art going on here. And a lot of services and a lot of just people that show up every day on lock their doors and have brought a new vitality to this neighborhood. And so those years, there’s been some really fun projects and and now we’re working on this distillery here in Charleston, nine months ago, and this has been a really fun project. There’s not anything like it. I would say in West Virginia, there’s nothing really like what we’re doing here. So if you ask me what my favorite project is, it’s the one I’m working on at the time. But they’re all my favorite.
Evan Sanford 09:41
What do you consider to be the state’s greatest resource? And how could it be harnessed to improve the economy?
Tighe Bullock 09:51
Our state’s greatest resources our people, and the best way we can harness is by keeping people here we have a major problem in West Virginia where our best and brightest and youngest don’t feel that they have a future in our state. And so they move to other places. Both my sisters are examples of that. Many of my friends are examples of that. Our people think our greatest export is coal. But it’s not as people, people are a greatest export. And I want to stop that, we can still send coal and natural resources out to the rest of the world. I think we should be proud to do that. But we should provide a space both educationally, professionally, and as a matter of quality of life for our people, for our young people, to stay here to feel like they have a future here to feel like they can reach their maximum capacity in West Virginia. And that’s, that’s a major part of why I do what I do is because I want to help provide that basis that quality of life. For West Virginians, and for our people, and I encouraged people to move to West Virginia, we need to, you know, we need we need new ideas we need new folks coming in. But I also want to keep the I want to keep everybody here as well, we, West Virginia is one of the only states in the union that’s losing population. Charleston, where we work here and live. losing population, we just dipped down below 50,000 people for the first time since the 60s. That’s a problem. That’s that’s a major problem for us. And if we don’t turn that tide, we’re going to find ourselves in a whole new level of problems that we’re not even appreciating right now.
Evan Sanford 11:51
You’ve talked about people being a great resource for the community, but in the world we live in broadband access is also a critical resource. And so I’d like to get your thoughts on West Virginia being one of the few states to receive federal funding to expand broadband through the American rescue plan. So can you talk about how it’s affected your community,
Tighe Bullock 12:15
Charleston itself has had decent broadband, there is a there is a big loop going through the city that is going to increase the accessibility. But I think it’ll where the where the real impact will be, is the more rural parts of West Virginia that they have great, you know, people want to live out in the in the woods, people want to live in these kind of quaint old communities, you know, sometimes some people do. And one of the things that’s holding them back is the ability to access the broader world in real time. And I think that when that boundary is or that that sort of overcome, then, you know, we were playing on a more even playing field with the rest of the world in terms of competing for talent and retaining talent.
Evan Sanford 13:08
Now, I want to ask you about this business incubator that you’re running. How did the idea for that come about?
Tighe Bullock 13:16
So Charleston, West Virginia has sort of been experiencing new iterations. And it’s in its lifespan, especially since the 80s. And so there’s a lot of downtown space, that is vacant business spaces. And so it’s sort of this, this older model of, of businesses and spaces that were, you know, businesses would rent a whole floor at a time, and it was sort of the cubicle model. And that’s kind of a large investment in terms of putting all your eggs in one basket, if you can’t find somebody who’s going to take up an entire floor, and the floor is designed that way, that can be difficult to get that thing rented out, or you just have to start to have to chop, chop it up and and make it usable for smaller businesses. And there’s there’s an investment to that. So we saw that happening in Charleston and sort of heard about some of these other models that other parts of the country were experimenting with. And so we moved to this sort of incubator space idea. So we would target one to two person, maybe three person businesses, and we would have sort of small office spaces, all centered around a central hub, with a shared bathroom is shared kitchenette. We have conference, we have a conference room for that whole two conference rooms for that whole building. So you could get on a calendar and schedule your conferences. And so it’s sort of mitigating your risk in the sense that, you know, you’re not going to lose a whole floor of tenants at one time, and you’re mitigating your upfront investment costs because you’re not every floor doesn’t have to have a conference room. Every every every office space every Eat, every you know, doesn’t have to have its own bathroom and things of that nature. So. So yeah, we were able to just sort of pivot and roll off of that. And we’ve been pretty successful at it so far. And I will say this, the one good aspect of this, this model is that we don’t lose a whole floor at a time if we lose a tenant. So you know, our risk is relatively low, in that respect. And to, we think it’s a great, it’s great for the local environment and the culture of the city. Because when we lose somebody, I think every single time we’ve lost a tenant, which is not that often, but when we do, it’s because they’ve hired another person, they’re growing their business. And so it really is incubating them, preparing them for to, you know, go out in the world and grow at their, at their leisure. And so and we keep them really lined up, they they barely go empty for a day, there’s almost a list, a waiting list, sort of for these incubator spaces. And people kind of tell their friends, and then so it’s pretty much a revolving door of businesses that come in and out. So our turnover is low on it. And our risk is low, and the investment is relatively low.
Evan Sanford 16:22
And can you tell us a little bit more about the mural that’s in your town, there’s a there’s a really great story about it. And I hope you can share that with our listeners,
Tighe Bullock 16:32
The Charly Hamilton mural was, it was it’s on the side of a building, it was the first building that we purchased was about 18 or 19 years old. And it was just it had a great potential opportunity to it, they just needed to be unlocked. And it turned out a little bit of elbow grease, and some paint, you know, sort of unlock that. And I think it helped unlock sort of a mental block in the larger community as well, in terms of hey, you know, there is potential here, there are things we can do. There are things we can do in this community. And you know, you always ask yourself, I think I think I got this from strong towns that you always ask yourself, What’s the smallest, nearest thing I can do and do that thing, and then do the next thing and incremental growth, you don’t have to make these huge leaps and bounds and strides. And so this one was, I think, some low hanging fruit, but a great return on on investment for from a community aspect. And so I got together with local artists, Charly Hamilton, who had grown up on the west side and just had some really incredible experiences and stories that I think really translated to a good mural. And so we got Charly started on it. I went and I cleaned up all the mortar reappointed it replaced a lot of bricks. And I did it about a year ahead of time and let the whole winter go through and weatherize it. And, and then we could, you know, there was one or two little places we had to touch up again, just to make sure it was a good canvas. And then we we basically pulled the trigger with Charly and Charly had his small sketch at first that he started with them. And it was wonderful. But then we, when he started getting into it took about a year and a half. And I mean, there’s just hundreds of faces in there. I mean, really hundreds of faces, and everybody has a story. Everybody is every face, and it represents either a person a thing, an event, or just sort of even a Zeitgeist or a vibe, as it were. And so ever. And I keep hearing new stories, you know, Charly’s passed on for about a year now. And I keep hearing new stories from people who I’ll meet them, and they’ll tell me the story of them in the mural. And to me, that’s just, that’s just content. It’s a gift that keeps on giving, I think to the community and keeps us all tight knit as well, because Charly would paint anybody and everybody that would walk by on there as well. So just all kinds of little fun ways that that we still continue to connect with each other.
Evan Sanford 19:11
It’s a great story and a great mural, and we’ll have links to that on our website, our towns. foundation.org. Before we go, I wanted to just give you one last opportunity to tell us what you’re excited about in the coming months and years in your town.
Tighe Bullock 19:26
I look forward to incremental growth. I look forward to seeing empty buildings in my community have new life breathed into them. I’m looking forward to seeing more people walking around, jogging around just enjoying their communities and enjoying their neighborhoods and feeling safe while they do so and feeling like they have ownership and that’s what I look forward to. I look forward to everybody coming together with common goals but also individual goals and seeing their own wishes and desires come true. wishing and and seeing all that as a nice bouquet of the Community Development.
Evan Sanford 20:06
Thank you so much Tighe for spending some time with us.
Tighe Bullock 20:09
Thank you, Evan, and I really appreciate the opportunity.
Evan Sanford 20:12
And thank you to our listeners for joining us as well. Until next time, I’m Evan Sanford and this is Inside Our Towns