Each year, the Morgantown Area Chamber of Commerce recognizes businesses, people, and organizations that are moving our town forward.
Rooms with a View
The Morgantown Area Chamber of Commerce 2018 New Business of the Year Award goes to Courtyard by Marriott.
The developers of the new Courtyard by Marriott Morgantown wanted to take the concept of “a room with a view” to a whole different level with their venture at University Town Centre. “We went about purchasing the land, and really had a vision of a differentiated hotel and lodging experience up on the hill that would overlook the entire city of Morgantown,” says Tom Bonney, an owner of hotel developer West Place LLC. “And that’s come to fruition.”
Perched on the hill at University Town Centre, Courtyard Morgantown has 107 guest rooms with sweeping and varying views, from the Monongalia County Ballpark on one side to the Monongahela River and the downtown cityscape on another. The location of the hotel, within close proximity to the WVU Coliseum and Mountaineer Field, makes it a prime stopover point for people visiting the university or heading to athletic events. Within reach, too, of major institutions such as Ruby Memorial Hospital, Mon Health Medical Center, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Mylan Pharmaceuticals, the hotel was intended to be well-positioned for Morgantown’s business community, as well.
As one of the newest Courtyard hotels in the region, the facility’s design reflects Marriott’s latest style, with a concrete structure for sound-proofing, glass-walled meeting space for maximum views, and a 1,200-square-foot conference room that can seat up to 60 people. That conference space has already had much interest and use as a meeting location by groups affiliated with WVU, Bonney says. “I think it’s really two things,” he says of its popularity. “It’s that the property and the location are beautiful. And we also have a phenomenal management team in place, and it shows in the feedback from the guests.”
Operated by InterMountain Management, Courtyard Morgantown’s daily operations are run by general manager J.R. Blaniar and director of sales Kimberly Thompson. After about a year of construction, the hotel began welcoming guests a little ahead of schedule, in April 2016, as part of the major expansion at University Town Centre. “We opened early because we wanted a first move or advantage up there,” Bonney says. And it paid off. Its location among the buzzing shops and restaurants of the Town Centre has helped fill rooms. With a Marriott Bistro inside the hotel itself and at least 17 other fastfood and casual dining options nearby, there’s no shortage of places to get a meal. The proximity to retailers that vary from Ulta, Maurice’s, and Target to Walmart, Dollar Tree, and Giant Eagle is another draw.
The hotel’s amenities distinguish it, too: An indoor, heated saltwater pool and an outdoor firepit both add a little something unique to the guest experience. Bonney notes there is a potential for changes at the hotel to further expand what it can offer guests. “We have some medium-term ideas to expand the conference space to accommodate weddings and slightly larger conferences,” he says. “At this point it is just in the idea stage, but we have some excess property up there. So we have the availability of land to do that if our demand and forecasting deem the community wants something like that.”
Cunningham Powell Alexander receives the Morgantown Area Chamber of Commerce 2018 Small Business of the Year Award.
The game changed for the accountants and financial planners at Cunningham Powell Alexander when they decided, almost two decades ago, to overhaul the way they charged their clients. Dan Powell, one of the principal partners in the firm, said they started realizing clients dreaded calling people like accountants and lawyers who charged by the hour because as soon as they pick up the phone, “the meter is running.”
“That clock is a barrier to the relationship,” Powell says. “The fixed-price model removes that barrier.”
Cunningham Powell Alexander not only transitioned to service-based billing, but also rewrote the script for how it builds relationships with its clients. “We wanted to become more about data management than data entry,” Powell says. “When a business owner comes to our firm and says, ‘I want to talk to you all about doing my work,’ what we used to do is let them tell us what they need and we would attempt to take care of them. We don’t do that anymore. Now we tell them who we are and how we want to help them,” Powell says. “We want to build a relationship with you, and a large part of that relationship is trust. Our clients need to trust us, because what they are going to do is what we call ‘baring their financial soul.’ We want to understand their goals, we want to understand where they want to be in five years.”
Cunningham Powell Alexander’s team includes more than a dozen certified public accountants, financial planners, and bookkeepers, most of whom take on more than one role. Partner Jim Alexander says the fact that most employees have a “second designation,” an additional degree or specialized area of expertise, has been critical in allowing the firm to meet clients’ needs. His own experience as a certified financial planner opened a lot of doors, allowing him to feel comfortable working with estate and probate issues, structuring life insurance, and helping businesses that are “transitioning to the next generation,” he says. “CPAs can do this, but a lot of them are scared,” says Alexander, who now serves as a visiting lecturer on estate planning at West Virginia University.
Similarly, Powell’s accreditation in business valuation, which he earned in 2013, makes him a standout in the local accounting field, Alexander notes. Another CPA at the firm, Travis Williston, has used his additional certifications in management consulting to help the firm branch out with its new Weston office, which opened this past year. “We work constantly on our practice,” Alexander says. “We have deep roots locally, and we stand on the shoulders of other men and women who came before us. There is a generational stamp on our firm.”
The firm first opened in Fairmont in 1964 under CPA Dick Chapman, and in 1977 came under ownership of Sherry Cunningham, who remained at the helm until 2007. Alexander and Powell became business associates and then partners in the firm after first meeting in college, through their church. Alexander says the two got each other through rough times when they were up all night at their kitchen tables getting ready for one financial exam or another. “We have spent a lot of time studying to get where we are.”
Preparing the Future
The Monongalia County Board of Education is recognized by the Morgantown Area Chamber of Commerce as the 2018 Nonprofit of the Year.
When it comes to educating our youth, it’s all about governance, not management—governance provided by the Monongalia County Board of Education, steered by president Barbara Parsons. Parsons was appointed to the Board of Education in 2000 after serving as president of the United Way of Monongalia and Preston Counties. Since joining the board, she has been elected to four four-year terms and was named president in July of 2010.
The Monongalia County Board of Education is responsible for serving 20 school sites and more than 11,400 students—a number that has grown consistently over the past five years. Monongalia County is one of the few counties in the state experiencing growth, a growth Parsons attributes to opportunity, expansion, construction, and a public that supported public education by approving the 2016 School Excess Levy. This levy provides extensive resources for positive developmental and educational resources—such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of America—along with new curricula, subjects, and teachers.
The Board of Education’s recent accomplishments may be seen across town in new construction and site renovations. “We always have a 10-year goal for construction,” Parsons elaborates, “because we have to look at what’s going to need done, where we are anticipating changes, maintenance, those type of things.”
But the Board of Education’s main mission is to govern. Governance, in this sense, means setting the direction for the institution, adopting policies, assigning resources, and employing a superintendent who is knowledgeable and competent to do the job. It’s a large and important mission that is complicated by budget cuts and changing requirements from both federal and state government.
The Monongalia County Board of education helps “prepare the future of our nation,” Parsons says. To accomplish this, the board works to keep all students in school. Success at that endeavor ensures that retention rates—currently in the 92nd percentile in the state—remain high. “If we can keep students in school, the likelihood is that they will graduate, and if they graduate, then they have more to offer in the marketplace and more potential to go to college.”
Education, we all know, is fundamental. Whether it’s gained through vocational training or higher education, knowledge leads to success, and that starts with effective school system governance . “Every future physician, teacher, ditch digger, bus driver, everything we need from our society is in our school systems,” Parsons says. Preparing students and offering them lifelong learning is the most important job in the world, in her mind. “Being able to survive in the world all comes back to what we teach in the school system.”
The Morgantown Area Chamber of Commerce awards its 2018 Large Business of the Year Award to Potesta & Associates.
Potesta and Associates Inc. calls itself a full-service company. “That probably separates us from a lot of the other companies,” says Dave Sharp, manager of Potesta’s Morgantown branch office. “You can hire one company, and we have teams of people who can all meet in one office.”
Since the company’s founding in 1997 in Charleston, where its headquartersremain, principals Ron Potesta and Dana Burns have grown their business to about 85 employees with offices in Morgantown and Winchester, Virginia. Morgantown, specifically, “has been good to us,” Sharp says. “The economy in a lot of parts of the state has gone up and down, but here it has stayed pretty much consistent.”
While Potesta doesn’t actually do architecture or construction, it specializes in most of the support services that are necessary when getting a major building or development project off the ground. Teams of scientists—biologists, chemists, and geologists, to name a few—and engineering experts from fields that include environmental, mechanical, and geotechnical can handle everything from civil engineering and site design to environmental assessment and monitoring, water and wastewater remediation, and asbestos removal.
Among its major recent projects in Morgantown, Potesta helped with site development, permitting, and engineering on the Sunnyside Commons student housing project and the University Place parking garage. The firm has had a hand in design and site work on The Villages at Cheat Landing and on the fly ash disposal facility at the Fort Martin landfill. Potesta also is now working with the Morgantown Utility Board on mitigation issues surrounding development of the new reservoir along Cobun Creek.
Another recent achievement, staffers say, is Potesta’s ongoing collaboration with mining services provider LP Mineral. That company now owns five locations in Monongalia and Marion counties, where coal refuse and pond sediment from previous mining operations needed to be dealt with. “We have a company that has recognized this, has purchased and owns the property, and is in the process of cleaning up these sites,” says Dan Miller, a senior scientist with the firm. “This company has been slowly and quietly transferring these materials to the Grant Town power plant. They burn this stuff and generate electricity for sale. When you are done with these silt ponds and coal refuse piles, you have land that is more valuable because this stuff isn’t leaching things into the ground and water.” Potesta has worked as the engineer of record on the project and has assisted with compliance issues, discharge monitoring, and environmental reporting. Helping such clients spark real changes in their communities is a highlight of Potesta’s work, Miller says.
Another recent highlight: Just last year, Potesta was recognized with a safety achievement award from the Contractors Association of West Virginia for 150,000 labor hours without a worker injury. “We are very proud of that,” Miller says. “That can be a deciding factor in getting jobs.”
Solving Problems for People
Jason Donahue is the Morgantown Area Chamber of Commerce’s 2018 Milan Puskar Entrepreneur of the Year.
Jason Donahue sums up the work of FEOH Realty in five words: “We solve problems for people.”
Donahue and his wife, Janet, formed their commercial brokerage firm in 2011 after helping another firm for years acquire and develop sites for Walmart stores. They had a hand in the opening of about 80 Walmarts in eight states, developments that amounted to almost a quarter of a billion dollars, Donahue says.
Their success in those ventures spawned a desire to see how they could help spur growth in Morgantown and the surrounding community. “I like seeing things change,” Donahue says. “I don’t worry about why it is the way it is. I think about what it could be.”
“We have a term in real estate: ‘highest and best use,’” he says. “I look for the opportunities to make properties more productive. That’s based upon ideas. Ideas are where wealth is created. That’s the basis of real estate development.”
FEOH—history buff Donahue came up with the name based on an ancient Nordic symbol that means, in part, “land” and “new things”—mostly works with the retail industry, helping tenants find suitable properties and helping property owners find tenants. In the past few years, it has helped two Starbucks stores open and has worked to find tenants for properties at Granville Square at the new Exit 153 off Interstate 79.
But the firm’s flagship project has without a doubt been assisting in the expansion of University Town Centre, for which FEOH has been broker, and the West Virginia Black Bears baseball stadium. That project evolved as the Donahues worked with developer Mon-View to figure out what to do with one parcel of land left after the opening of the Walmart there. The success of that expansion turned out to be bigger than anything the Donahues could have imagined. “To finish a 60-acre project, sell it out completely, build the ballpark and the interchange in five years, I think is pretty amazing,” he says. “I will say this: Walking across that baseball stadium field when the stadium had its first game and the Pittsburgh Pirates owners were there and WVU leadership was there, to see it go from an idea to reality was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever felt in my life.”
It’s watching how the evolution of such ventures can impact an entire community that keeps Donahue always on the lookout for his next real estate gig. “The one thing I like about what we do, when we buy a piece of property for a client, something usually happens on that property that creates jobs,” he said. “So two people can really end up affecting hundreds of people directly. I really like that.” FEOH runs a tight ship out of its offices on University Avenue; it’s still just the two of them who make up the staff. Donahue says it’s the pair’s diverse skill set—Janet transitioned to real estate after a long career in nursing—and their cooperation that makes the team successful. “Real estate can be very trying,” he says. “It can be a lot of risk. You can work a long time on a project and it can fall apart. So having that support is critical.”
This story corrects an error in the print version that misidentified Janet Donahue.
Learning and Growing
The Stick Co. receives the Morgantown Area Chamber of Commerce 2018 Medium Business of the Year Award.
The marketing wizards and design gurus at The Stick Co. know firsthand how even the smallest hiccup with branding can have a big impact on business. Before owner Damian Ferek merged several of his businesses under The Stick Co. umbrella in 2015, his marketing firm went by a different name: Asayo Creative, an acronym for “A Style All Your Own.” It seemed catchy.
“No one could ever pronounce it—no one understood it,” he says. “We got calls thinking we were a Japanese restaurant or a hair salon.”
So when Ferek merged his marketing firm and a second start-up that specialized in vehicle wraps, he decided to simplify things and play off his team’s expertise putting advertising decals and wraps on company cars. “We took the ‘-er’ off ‘sticker’ and that’s what it was,” Ferek says. “It was so much easier.”
Helping companies brand and market themselves, The Stick Co. does everything from designing company logos and handling advertising to creating and maintaining websites, a job that is constantly changing. “Websites are evolving from something you needed to have—kind of static, kind of basic—to becoming the tool that separates you from somebody else,” Ferek says. “We are an example of that,” he says of his office of about 20 employees. “We offer the same services as any other small marketing or branding agency, but our website shows who we are and how we are different.” Highlighting his team’s quirks and personalities—“We’re a little sarcastic,” he says—The Stick Co. website itself serves as a “sales funnel.” “Who we are as a company helps dictate who our clients are.”
The Stick Co. has built relationships with major Morgantown clients such as Clear Mountain Bank and Accelerated Construction. But “we’ve really made our bones in energy and oil and gas,” Ferek says. He first struck out on his own in marketing and advertising in 2007. “The Marcellus (Shale) boom was 2008, so we lucked out with that coinciding together,” he says of finding clients in the energy sector. Working with many of those companies, Ferek says, he started the West Virginia Oil and Gas Expo in 2011 to highlight the state’s potential in that field. Participation has since grown and diversified, and this year the trade show was renamed the West Virginia Energy Expo. “We found a way to, basically, have 300 companies call us who were looking for a way to market themselves in West Virginia,” Ferek says. It’s also another niche specialty that has helped launch Ferek and his team to the next level.
About six months after opening his first business, a couple of clients asked Ferek whether he could do vehicle wraps: customized vinyl designs that make company vehicles stand out. He looked at co-worker Jarrod Miller, whom he had hired just days before as an intern. “I asked him, ‘Hey, do you know anything about how to do this?’” he recalls. “He said, ‘No, nothing.’ I said, ‘Me neither, but we’re going to figure it out.’” They proceeded to take on a job wrapping about 50 company vehicles and putting decals on a couple hundred more.
Celebrating its 10th year in 2017, The Stick Co. has become expert at vehicle wraps. And Ferek and his team continue to learn and grow. Ferek has taken vehicle wrapping to its surprising next step: wrapping caskets. The Stick Co. now owns and operates the website casketwraps.com. The team can customize a casket and have it shipped anywhere in the country in as little as 24 hours. The process is very similar to designing wraps for trucks or trailers, and no one is successfully doing it on a national scale, Ferek says. Until now. “The agency will continue to do the things we do in this area, but from a growth standpoint, there is a major growth potential there,” he says.
His biggest concern right now: “I wish there was more time in a day.”
The Morgantown Area Chamber of Commerce honors Jamie Summerlin with its 2018 Earl L. Core Award for outstanding community service.
Jamie Summerlin says the best motivational speech he ever heard was when someone told him, “You can’t do that.” The Braxton County native was told long ago he was too small to be a Marine, that his idea to run across America was impossible, and that his goal to bring a marathon to hilly Morgantown would never come to fruition. He’s done all three. “I don’t know that it’s just necessarily proving other people wrong, but it’s proving to myself it can be done,” he says.
Summerlin went from running his first marathon in 2009 to running 3,452 miles across the country in 2012 to raise money for veterans’ causes. Then he decided to take the can-do attitude he has for himself and apply it to his community. He wants people to ask, “Why not Morgantown? Why not my town? Instead of complaining, let’s work together and see how we can make it happen.”
Summerlin is the founder and board president of Operation Welcome Home, the veterans’ support group that primarily assists veterans in re-entering the workforce. Since its creation in 2012, buoyed by money raised during Summerlin’s 100-day “Freedom Run” across America, the nonprofit has helped more than 300 veterans find full-time employment.
“We’ve built the trust and a solid reputation as an organization that does what it says,” Summerlin says. He enjoys helping veterans and the state at the same time. “It’s not just that we’re supporting veterans, it’s also giving them gainful employment, giving back to their families, and contributing to the tax base.”
Summerlin started the Morgantown Marathon in 2015 to raise money for the veterans’ organization, but it has grown into a way to “showcase Morgantown,” he says. This year’s race, which winds through all the city’s seven wards, brought more than 1,100 runners and 500 volunteers from 38 states and three countries: Canada, Japan, and Mexico.
The combination of challenging terrain and all the “extras” organizers have built in—there are now a wine and jazz festival, a health and wellness expo, and live entertainment—gives the marathon potential to provide a major boost to the local economy. “People are gonna come here for the experience,” he says. “We really promote the area—we want people to stay for a few days. It’s an opportunity to showcase the beauty we have right here in our backyard.”
Summerlin’s success with the marathon has attracted the attention of other community activists. Organizers of MountainFest, the motorcycle rally now in its 13th year, recently brought him on board to coordinate and promote the massive fundraising event. In his first year at the helm, Summerlin helped bring in major musical acts including Hank Williams Jr. and the Davisson Brothers Band. “I’m excited to see where it goes,” Summerlin says. “It fits right into the model of what I do, which is supporting organizations that support our community. If I’m not directly impacting the community, I want to be assisting an organization that does.”
Written by Kris Wise Maramba and Julian Wyant
Photographed by Carla Witt Ford