FAIRMONT — Two hours southwest of Marion County in Calhoun County, residents are celebrating the groundbreaking of a new community center that was funded by former hellraisers from the Calhoun High class of 1982.
Making it to graduation must have been quite an accomplishment because the buoyant mood couldn’t be suppressed long enough to make it through the graduation ceremony. The police were called in during the ceremony.
The Calhoun High School class of ‘82 became known informally as the “most disgraceful class.”
However, nearly 40 years later, members of that class have come together to provide a much-needed boost to Grantsville, West Virginia and the Calhoun County economy, and in so doing, redeemed themselves.
Leading the way is Crystal Laughlin Mersh, who left Calhoun County to study chemistry at Fairmont State University, and later worked all over the globe for 25 years as a scientist for multinational companies in the pharmaceutical sector. For the past nine years, Mersh has run her own pharmaceutical management consulting company.
It was never a question of whether or not Calhoun County needed help. It was always a matter of who could do it, and how. Mersh started by setting up a nonprofit, appropriately named The 1982 Foundation, and put in $1 million of her own money.
“We started getting close about three years ago, and having reunions every year,” Mersh said of the notorious class of ‘82. “There was a network of us that stayed connected. When this opportunity came about, I talked to some of them and they said, ‘Oh yeah, I’m up for that’.”
It’s not clear what came first — the availability of the old high school, or shared intention to do something to help the county.
Regardless, with the $1 million seed money from Mersh, the rowdy class of ‘82 — or more specifically, The 1982 Foundation — bought the high school of their youth. Built in 1921, the structure had been vacant for years.
With her vision of a thriving future for Calhoun County, and how she might play a role in that, Mersh also knew she’d have to tread lightly. Small towns need time to take in big changes.
“I’ve been gone for 40 years,” Mersh said, “and I knew that people might be skeptical — I anticipated that coming in. And there was a little bit of that on the front end — just a little tiny bit — but then they just turned it around and have really embraced it.
“I am honored and humbled that they have trusted me,” Mersh said. “We have six members [from the class of ‘82] who represent the officers of the foundation, they are providing a variety of support in different ways.”
Plans for the structure are extensive. When finished, it will be a nonprofit community center with mixed-use space.
“The idea is that it will be self-funding, so you have revenue-generating operations that fund services for the community,” Mersh said.
In terms of generating revenue, “there will be Airbnb rooms for rent — beautiful suites with hardwood floors. There will be six of those and one very large suite,” Mersh said.
“There will also be retail and office space for lease,” Mersh continued. “We want to have retail stores that are artsy — things from local craftsmen, artisans, antique stores, that sort of thing.
“And there will be a cafe.”
Mersh said a day care center will be located within the building, but the cost for care will be offset by revenue generated by the other businesses.
“A lot of women don’t have the option to work because they can’t afford day care,” Mersh said. “So we wanted to find and provide an affordable solution for them.
“It will be something that is affordable, and the same thing with the summer day camps — they will be a big part of our program. It took us a while to come up with the right kind of mix of businesses to find something that would be viable,” Mersh said.
The project is organized into three phases.
“The first phase will be the gymnasium, then a commercial kitchen behind that, and we think that’s where we’re going to put the day care and fitness center. But we won’t know until we have the meeting with the architect,” Mersh said.
“We hope to have that completed sometime next year. But there’s a lot of demolition that has to be done around that gymnasium, and that’s a little bit of an unknown. You can never tell — it can take longer than you think,” Mersh said.
“Then, the second phase will be the main building. The Airbnb rooms will be on the top floor,” Mersh said, “and the community rooms, classrooms and conference rooms will be on the central floor. Then, on the bottom floor will be the retail and office space.”
The third phase of the project will be the cafe and two additional retail spaces, Mersh said.
“Our plan is to raise another $2 million,” Mersh said. “One million through grants and the other million through fundraising and private and corporate donations.”
“I’ve been here about a month now, and I’ll be here for another month or so until we get the project well under construction,” Mersh said.
Mersh credits her fellow rowdies for being “the boots on the ground, and making it happen. They are really putting a lot of time and effort into it,” Mersh said. “And the community is responding — it’s amazing.
“The town and community in general — they’re very involved and very excited about the project,” Mersh said. “The town has really come to life. And I do think it can absolutely be a model for other areas,” she said.
Groundbreaking is scheduled today, when an expected 850 guests will attend a picnic to celebrate the endeavor. In addition to residents and friends, Mersh expects county officials to attend.
“To kick off the project, the ceremony will be conducted by the most athletic boy from our class, and the most athletic girl,” Mersh said.