By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV
February 12, 2023
The Sportsman Tavern in Ronceverte is one of the longest-running bars in West Virginia. After first opening in the 1920s during the town’s rise as a rail town, it’s now reopening under the leadership of local developers Mark Trent and Dan Withrow.
“If you care about your community and want to change it, don’t wait for change to just happen,” Mark counsels others across the state who are interested in rebuilding their communities. “Start the change. You’d be surprised how many people will follow along.”
Mark and Dan underwent an 8-month process to purchase, renovate, and reopen The Sportsman Tavern located on Edgar Avenue in Ronceverte. “We wanted to give it new life,” Mark said. “Everyone is welcome here. We want to be inclusive of the entire community.” They want The Sportsman to be a family-friendly destination.
Both Dan and Mark have been involved in every step of the process to the point, and will be moving forward. But they are quick to say that it’s been a community effort. “To do community development, you need a team. There are so many details no one person knows,” Mark says. “So many local contractors and bars have been there to help us–Lance & Susan Syner, Clay Elkins, Dave Bostic, Josh & Mary Baldwin, and more.”
At the grand opening, several floral arrangements lined the bar. All were gifts from local leaders and businesses who wanted to wish Mark and Dan well.
What does it take to do community development?
Small towns like Ronceverte are at a crossroads. They aren’t what they once were, and it’s unclear what they might be. It’s a story every small town in West Virginia knows well–population decline, shifting economics, aging infrastructure. Yet, Mark and Dan are filled with hope.
“It’s possible,” Mark says. “You just have to be brave enough to do it. You’ve gotta have faith. You’ve gotta have patience. This isn’t an overnight process. You’ve gotta work with a team. Work with a local bank. Pull experts into the process. Have a great local network to support you. Don’t assume you know anything.”
At the end of the day, Mark says anyone wanting to positively impact their community can. “If you have a strong relationship with your community, you can do anything.”
You also get the sense talking to them that they know a lot is riding on their project. People are watching them closely. They feel a “moral responsibility” to be good stewards as they work to develop the town.
A storied history
After talking about this project for four years, Dan and Mark bought the bar with a clear plan. They were going to move the bar, remove a wall, replace the front windows, and re-open.
“We ended up gutting it,” Mark said. “Basically, anything we did we always did the hard way. We salvaged old wood, windows, and historical items.”
Customers at the soft opening who had been to The Sportsman previously all marveled at the changes–original brick walls, refinished concrete floor, brand new bar, tables with built-in chess/checkers boards, big screen TVs, pool table, arcade games, digital jukebox, shuffleboard, and more.
“We were replacing an old bar with a new bar, but we wanted to make it feel like it’s been here for years,” explained Mark, before letting out a deep breath and saying as he nodded, “We’ve done that.”
The space is filled with historical nods to the town and the bar. Hexagonal tile at the entrance. Bus hall standards from the old elementary school framed on the wall. The town’s only stop light. A payphone. The old window now repurposed behind the bar. A canoe on the ceiling. All pieces of the past serving as a bridge to the town’s future.
Just getting started
Mark and Dan are not done; they are just getting started. They have a vision to develop Ronceverte.
“We love this bar and building, of course,” explains Mark, “but we also want to be a showcase for what’s possible in Ronceverte.”
They hope to see continued development in available properties downtown. Working with other business owners and local officials, they are part of a comprehensive-planning process they think will usher in a new era of development for the town.
Mark recently took a seat on the city council and Dan is Director of the Parks & Recreation Committee. “We will be here each day getting the bar going, but there will be more,” Mark says. “Stay tuned.”