According to The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, “the arts and culture sector contributes $1.5 billion to West Virginia’s economy, representing 3.5% of the state’s GDP—a larger share than other industries in the state,” including Education services and Agriculture combined.
Not too shabby.
The roots of arts and culture in West Virginia run deep. Think of the WWVA Jamboree, jazz bands, Tamarack and classical music. In fact, West Virginia’s history cannot be fully told unless we talk about the arts. And our future looks no different.
Meet John and Camille.
I met the couple and their tiny pup, Arya, on a chilly day at Heritage Port, near their downtown flat.
John, Music Director at the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra and Camille, an independent PR and communications consultant, have only lived in Wheeling a year, but they are already investing their energies in the revitalization of the city.
Despite their love for Wheeling, the two weren’t always home to our state. They grew up an ocean apart – 1,640 miles apart, to be exact. John in Bronxville, New York and Camille in Ponce, Puerto Rico.
While both found their passions for the arts early – their families certainly didn’t expect them to have careers in music.
“My hometown of Ponce, Puerto Rico actually has a government-funded after-school music program that they run very much like a conservatory,” Camille remarks.
While her parents loved that music kept her occupied, they didn’t quite expect it to become a career.
“In my school, if you had good grades you were going to become an engineer, a lawyer or a doctor. But when I told my parents and my high school counselor that I wanted to do music, the dean of the school called me into her office to talk me out of it.”
After listening to her parents and the dean of her high school, Camille decided to pursue two degrees in music and communications.
However, after two years of juggling these two different paths, Camille left her communications program to pursue music full time. After graduating from the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music, Camille was accepted to the University of Akron for music.
Camille subsequently acquired her Masters in Music and went on to earn her second Masters in Arts Administration which informs much of the independent PR work she does today.
Despite West Virginia being a little different than Puerto Rico, Camille’s ability to work remotely with organizations from across the U.S. makes Wheeling a great fit.
I asked John to describe his background before moving to Wheeling.
“My background up until I met Camille was pretty straightforward. I was like a middle/upper middle-class white guy named John, with blue eyes and blonde hair that was catholic growing up with conservative parents in a suburb of NYC,” John laughs. Growing up, John felt similar pressure from his parents to pursue a more “practical” career path.
“I rebelled a little bit in the way Camille did. My dad was like ‘do you want to be a lawyer or an engineer?’”
John nevertheless felt he needed to study what he loved – classical music.
This determination led him to obtain a bachelor’s degree in Music and Latin from Emory University; plus a master’s and doctorate in Orchestral Conducting from the University of Maryland.
It was in Washington, D.C. where the two met for the first time as they describe the spontaneous and happenstance event by which they met.
“In 2013, I was still playing my oboe and, by chance, I was called to sub for an orchestra in D.C., it was called the Apollo Chamber Orchestra,” Camille reflects. “John happened to be the assistant conductor of that group and we met for the first time during rehearsals.
John laughed and continued. “In a very nerdy way, I asked her on a date and then that was the last person I ever asked on a first date.”
The couple were engaged shortly after and married in Camille’s hometown of Ponce.
It was just before their move to Hawaii, where John worked as Music Director of the Hawaii Youth Symphony program, that the couple learned of an incredible opportunity in a place called Wheeling.
“When we moved to Hawaii, we were ready for a change and ready to establish ourselves in a new environment,” John remarks. “It brought us closer in many ways, learning a new city. But the whole time I was in the audition process for the Wheeling Symphony.”
An audition process that took two years.
The couple looked at the pros and cons of their potential move. Taking into account the wide difference in cost of living between the two cities – the median home price in Honolulu being over half a million dollars and Wheeling being just over $100,000. But, they also wondered what opportunities they might lose by moving from such a large metropolitan area to a rural small town.
When the time came, however, the two chose Wheeling.
This kind of deliberation is not uncommon. Many folks from big metropolitan areas are interested in exploring life beyond the rat race, but unless cities like Wheeling focus on what people are looking for, we may not always be the place they choose.
So when we mull over what it takes to attract young talent and build a thriving economy, the arts should always have a seat at the table – or maybe two.
Finally, as I am prone to do, I asked John and Camille for a favor.
I asked each of them to describe what they would say if they had to sell the city of Wheeling to potential newcomers.
In short – why Wheeling?
“Honestly, I would talk about all the earnest, generous, loving people that have opened their homes and their hearts to us,” Camille laughs. “I’m not trying to be corny, it’s true.”
Camille also mentions how important she believes the Symphony is to Wheeling’s overall value.
“Where I grew up in Ponce, the population was 200,000 people and we never had an orchestra. I think it is a testament of how much people here support the performing arts and for a town of this size to have what we have is impressive. It gives me a lot of hope.
John adds “We have a three-bedroom apartment for less than $1000 a month. It’s bonkers. I have a home office. Camille has enough space to work from home remotely, our dog has enough space to live. It’s truly incredible that I can just walk to work. Nothing beats that.”
John and Camille are incredible examples of why Wheeling works. It’s evident that our landscape, our affordability, our people, and our art make the difference. And that’s music to my ears!
• Rosemary Ketchum is a member of the Wheeling City Council representing Ward 3. Rosemary is associate director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Greater Wheeling Drop-in Center and on the boards of several organizations including the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. She has served as a guest on MSNBC and has been profiled by several publications including Time Magazine, CBS and CNN for her work in community organizing and politics.