Pax, like many small West Virginia towns, is dying.
From a high population of more than 600 in 1940 to closing in on 150, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the small Fayette County community has lost its schools and many of its businesses as its population migrates elsewhere or passes away.
William Hughes was part of that migration.
After graduating from Mount Hope High in the early 1990s, Hughes joined the Navy before becoming a contractor for the U.S. Department of Defense and private companies working on modifications, structural repair and builds on several types of aircraft.
Tired of the travel involved in his work, Hughes moved back to West Virginia seeking to settle down and reconnect with his hometown.
What he saw in Pax was not a welcoming sight.
He said when he was growing up in the small community along Paint Creek, Pax had several places to purchase groceries and gas.
Now there is one.
“It just disappeared,” he said. “How in the world did we get to this in Pax?”
While the disappearing coal town is not a singular event in southern West Virginia, Pax is a little different than most as an interstate highway passes by its front door.
A history buff, Hughes said he wanted to know what happened and, during his research into the town, discovered text written in its heyday that predicted a connecting highway between Beckley and Charleston, the West Virginia Turnpike, would help help Pax prosper into a city with thousands of residents.
“It said this in 1949 and the road happened in 1977,” Hughes said. “What happened? Why didn’t the town grow? That just baffled me.”
Hughes said research led him to believe that the non-growth of Pax was largely due to two factors: the concentration of the county on areas around the New River Gorge in the past and on simple government mismanagement by the town’s own leaders.
The Pax native pointed to a lack of an attitude for growth with the town not upgrading its processes, its technology and waiting until the last minute to reach out for help.
So in 2012, he ran for town council, was later appointed to the mayorship after the mayor at the time stepped down and won an election for the position.
For six years he has served as the dwindling town’s mayor though he said most of the time has been spent correcting the past.
“We’re catching up on over 20 years of neglect,” the mayor said. “We’ve tried to do things here on our own as much as possible. We’ve tried to seek some free help from different people.”
While Hughes noted that some of the corrections have been costly, he said his experience in the aircraft industry leads him to believe that you cannot continue on a path of doing things the same way and expect to survive.
A full-time Phd student, with a day job and a martial arts school in Oak Hill, the mayor said that while things for Pax may seem dire, he believes in his heart that the town can survive.
“A lot of people kept telling me that we just need to close the town down, (that) we just need to incorporate and turn it over to the county,” Hughes said. “I don’t feel like we’ve really given it a good try to make the town grow.”
Although the mayor said that the majority of his first six years have been spent playing catch up, he also points to a water and a sewer project, both nearing construction, and the movement of the town hall into the town’s old school.
According to the mayor, the town’s old town hall was in the flood plain and lacked disabled access which led to the move to the old school building which he said saved the town from having another dilapidated structure.
“We may be in the same place economically, but at least we’ve reestablished a foundation for somebody to go further with,” he said. “It’s taken a lot to re-establish a foundation.”
With the soon to be sewer extension upcoming, Hughes believes the town will be able to take care of what he believes is its best opportunity; its exit of off I-77.
“Basically, its a lack of infrastructure that’s caused that exit to not be popular,” the mayor said.
According to Hughes, he has received some kick-back on the infrastructure projects with some arguing the decision put the town into debt.
“No, I’m putting this town in a path towards economic growth,” he responded. “That infrastructure is going to bring stuff in.”
Now with the infrastructure projects in the works, Hughes said he is shifting towards new goals.
The mayor said he has been in conversations with the West Virginia National Guard, the Fayette County Commission and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin’s office on ideas that he believes will save parts of the town from some floodwaters.
While battling the creek waters, Hughes said he also wants to take advantage of them.
Pax sits along the Paint Creek Scenic Trail, a driving tour along the historic creek that begins at Tamarack and ends in Pratt in Kanawha County where the creek empties into the Kanawha River.
“I would like to tie Pax into that and make Pax the center place to where people come through and can stop,” he said.
Relying on the town’s heritage, Hughes said he is working on reopening the town’s library and believes that it can become a regional stronghold for historical research and genealogy.
A decendent of the man who owned the land grant for the property that the town sits on, the mayor said he has received calls from descendants of residents who have wanted to stop in and find out about their history.
Hughes added that he also aims to attempt to bring in small cottage industry into the town.
He believes that the town can attract small industries with 10 to 20 employees and could possibly host a small industrial park.
“We need to have some amenities in town,” he said. “We can’t do the great things that we want, but we can do the small things. Over time great things will happen.”
While some may believe efforts in the state need to be made in larger communities with more possibilities, Hughes said those people need to think outside of the box and that helping small outlying communities will boost the entire state.
“If you’re just throwing everything into one basket, into Beckley, into Oak Hill and that area, you’re not helping out the things that are feeding it,” the mayor said. “The people that are coming in are still poor and they become poorer because they have to travel to get anything.”
— Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; follow on Twitter @mattcombsRH