by Katie Teems, NHT AmeriCorps Member
How did a native of Allegany, New York come to work in Thomas? Like a number of residents in the state, Luke Elser served as an AmeriCorps VISTA Member. Luke lived in the Beckley and Fayetteville areas, working in a support role for watershed protection groups in the state. We know him in Thomas through his position as Project Manager with West Virginia BAD Buildings Program - a program of the Northern WV Brownfields Assistance Center.
Luke is currently helping New Historic Thomas to compile an update of the BAD (Brownfields, Abandoned, and Dilapidated) Buildings inventory, which will help us to prioritize vacant and dilapidated buildings for redevelopment and work with others to gain funding and find dedicated owners for our vacant properties. He’s worked with New Historic Thomas and volunteers since 2012 when he started the BAD Buildings surveys. At that time, Thomas was one of three pilot communities for the program, along with Mount Hope and Cowen. “Thomas was the most successful,” Luke added, and the model developed in Thomas has served as a model for the rest of the State.
In his current position, Luke coordinates directly with communities, assists with public meetings, holds workshops, conducts site visits, and connects communities with resources. Luke has helped Thomas secure $400,000 in nationally competitive grant funding U.S. EPA. Whenever Luke sees an old building gone or a new one constructed, he feels happy knowing that part of his work helped make that change happen.
Luke is leaving on May 15th to move to New Orleans, where he will attend Tulane to earn an MBA through Tulane’s school of Architecture. His focus will be sustainable real estate development. He doesn’t want to become another “dreaded developer.” Rather, he wants to “be in the front-end of development” to address a community’s needs and work to do something that will be good for the community.
While Luke doesn’t know where he wants to end up, he is excited about all that is happening in West Virginia and looks forward to working more in rural development. “So many small communities throughout the United States are overlooked,” he said, and he wants to remedy that.
"Even though most Thomas residents never met Luke and are not aware of his important contributions to Thomas' current revitalization success, New Historic Thomas and the City of Thomas will forever be grateful for Luke's care and dedication to our community, " says Emily Wilson-Hauger, New Historic Thomas' Director.
Luke enjoys working in Thomas and emphatically says he’ll come back to visit. “It might not feel this way for people living in Thomas, but the state points to Thomas as an example of how to do downtown redevelopment correctly,” he said.
Thank you, Luke Elser, for all you've done for the Thomas community. Best wishes in your future adventures. Come back for a Purple Fiddle concert sometime soon!