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Bank Leaders Find Future-Focused Progress in West Virginia Coal Mining Towns

Tom Barkin sits at table with other leaders discussing Community Conversations in West Virginia

During a recent Community Conversations visit to West Virginia, Richmond Fed leaders witnessed burgeoning efforts to transform the southern part of the state from a coal-based economy to one sustained by tourism and recreation, entrepreneurism and renewable energy.

Bank President Tom Barkin, Regional Executive Andy Bauer and Community Development Manager Peter Dolkart spent two days in Boone and Logan counties in late August, meeting with civic, community and business leaders who shared new and ongoing projects that involve making the most of the coal industry while simultaneously investing in tourism, renewable energy and small business opportunities.

“Coal is still an important part of the economy and a significant base for employment for both Boone and Logan,” Bauer said. “Right now, there is a lot of demand for coal, in part, due to disruptions to the energy supply in Europe; but that’s a temporary circumstance. Boone and Logan leaders are working very hard to find alternative drivers for their local economies.”

In Boone County, Barkin, Bauer and Dolkart met with executives from the Hatfield-McCoy Regional Recreation Authority, which was created by the West Virginia legislature to diversify the economy in the southern part of the state. A significant piece of this economic development puzzle is the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System, which encompasses Boone, Logan and 12 other localities.

“Every year, the number of permits to develop trails is increasing,” Bauer said. “If you’re a town near a trailhead, you’re working hard to increase the lodging and amenities that attract visitors. We met with a developer who is working to build a resort.”

The Community Conversations team also met with a Boone resident whose 200-year-old family business has begun a new chapter focused on renewable energy. The family is securing financing to redevelop what was once West Virginia’s largest coal mine site into a solar project, which would be the largest of its kind in the state.

A small business in the county received funding from the Benedum Foundation and the Appalachian Regional Commission to see if lavender could be successfully grown on the site of a former coal mine. Five years later, the company is selling lavender-based products to boutique stores in eight states. “What is also impressive about the business is their commitment to the community,” said Bauer, noting that 95 percent of their workforce is from Boone. “They make an effort to hire local workers – including some who face barriers to employment such as transportation, childcare, a prior conviction or substance use disorder – and help them progress.”

The Community Conversations team also witnessed how area hospitals have stepped up to support the communities in terms of health and social wellbeing, and economic sustainability.

The hospital system in Boone acquired land on Main Street and is planning to open a farmer’s market on the property, giving local farmers a central place to sell their crops and area residents a place to buy healthy food. The goal is to eventually locate a community kitchen and small businesses nearby, Bauer said.

In Logan, the team met with local leaders to discuss infrastructure projects in the county. There is an effort underway to expand broadband and to devise a strategy for repurposing abandoned properties. Logan soon will be one of the first counties in West Virginia with ubiquitous access to broadband. Logan is also one of 21 communities to recently receive state funding to repurpose vacant buildings and homes. The $1.5 million awarded to the county could have a significant impact, given that Logan, like many rural communities, struggles with having enough land upon which to build housing.

“If you’re able to take these existing abandoned properties and repurpose them or rebuild, this program could be important for housing needs in the county,” Bauer said.

The visit to West Virginia yielded a surprising balance in workforce status: while some industries in the southern part of the state are having challenges finding workers, such as restaurants in need of cooks and waiters, many employers felt they were able to find the workers they needed. However, many of the businesses and local leaders noted that providing opportunities to attract individuals back into the labor market remained a challenge.

The Community Conversations team also met with the local community college, which is playing a key role in training for occupations in demand. Due to the current need for coal, for example, there has been an increase in the number of people enrolling in a mining certification program. The college also is developing a lineman utility program and a mortuary science program. In addition, the college’s nursing program has helped the local health systems maintain a steady source of nursing professionals.

“The community college allows local high school students to take classes as part of their high school academic day,” Dolkart said. “This dual-enrollment program is called the Early College Academy, and state leaders have said they’d like other institutions to follow suit.”

The collaborative vision and strategic efforts in Boone and Logan left the Community Conversations team intrigued and eager to watch what will unfold in the coming years.

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Jim Strader (804) 697-8956 (804) 332-0207 (mobile)