When several dozen West Virginians showed up at a church gymnasium in Logan County last month to provide input to lawmakers on their community’s future, there wasn’t much that they hadn’t heard before.
Coal jobs have been disappearing for decades with nothing arriving to take their place. And over the years, public officials have offered few solutions other than unfulfilled promises and a myriad of economic study after study, documenting the coalfields’ decline without real action.
“We’ve been studied to death,” said Kris Mitchell, who directs the Boone County Community and Economic Development Corporation. “We need solutions for our people, and those solutions don’t involve another study.”
A small group of men in the back of the Logan County gymnasium had some ideas. Former bailiff David Steele wanted to see more jobs, as a way to keep people out of jail. Aaron Blankenship, who works at a local Jeep dealership, wanted more specialized training programs and manufacturing jobs in his region, as well as agriculture.
Dennis Wellman, a retired coal worker who started his career in the late 1980s, had his own thoughts too. But there was one project he just couldn’t shake that he had begun hearing about years ago: redevelopment plans at the old Hobet surface mining site, where he used to work in safety training.
The mine on the border of Boone and Lincoln counties, once one of the largest surface mines in West Virginia, hasn’t produced coal for years. In 2016, former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said it was going to be the “largest industrial site in West Virginia history” and changed the site’s name to the “Rock Creek Development Park.” When plans for a major road upgrade quietly fell through in 2018 during the current Justice administration, National Guard officials told the region that the former Hobet site was going to become training grounds for West Virginia airmen.
Today, the mountaintop remains empty.
“They had a lot of ideas, but nobody’s ever followed through with them,” Wellman said.
It was this backdrop of broken promises that helped to land southern West Virginia the top spot on a list of the Biden administration’s 25 most-concerning former and current coal communities in the nation. Even the most recent initiative — state lawmakers’ Coal Communities Comeback Plan project, which launched earlier this year — seems like a familiar effort amid the unfulfilled promises former state officials have made at Hobet and elsewhere.
But many people who are spearheading the most recent effort say that millions of new and recently identified federal dollars for coal-dependent communities is what makes this time different. And some are even eyeing Hobet as a site with potential, despite its history as a well-worn silver bullet that has never lived up to economic development promises.
“Down in Logan we said ‘Once in a lifetime’ — and it probably is once in a lifetime,” said Delegate Ed Evans, D-McDowell, who co-chairs the House working group with Republican Mark Dean of Mingo County. Evans was speaking at a second scheduled listening event in Beckley.
“You’re never going to see this kind of money again, either,” Evans said. “I don’t think any of us can fathom what kind of money we’re talking about.”
What Hobet could’ve been
As West Virginia’s high-quality coal reserves are mined out, and natural gas and renewables are increasingly cheaper in a world that needs to reduce carbon emissions, it’s not just coal production that’s declining — it’s jobs.
“People don’t realize what kind of payroll it was,” said Wellman. “Now that money’s gone. It’s just unbelievable.”
For decades, Hobet was a poster child for both industry officials and environmental groups. Industry lobbyists touted it as a highly productive mine, took reporters on tours of what they said was successful reclamation, and teased out how its gently rolling and flattened-out land could become some future economic project. Environmental groups who sued the companies overseeing the site pointed to the many miles of rich Appalachian streams that the operation had buried beneath waste rock and dirt, and water pollution. And the mine changed hands several times, being handed from struggling energy company to struggling energy company like a hot potato until it eventually closed.
Today, the empty site remains a paragon of unfulfilled promises for what a post-coal economy could look like in the coalfields. First, state regulators failed to enforce mountaintop removal laws, to ensure the land could be used after the mine closed. When former Gov. Tomblin promised to invest hundreds of millions of federal and state dollars into the site in 2016, the Justice administration scrapped those commitments a year later.
So what’s different?
Today, local economic development organizations are working with state agencies like the Division of Highways and the state Department of Commerce to raise money for infrastructure work that will make the Hobet mountaintop more attractive to employers.
Mitchell, who leads the Boone County Community and Economic Development Corporation, says Hobet’s largest barrier has been grant matching requirements that the federal government will sometimes use to prove a community is invested in the project.
“Frankly, most of southern West Virginia doesn’t have any skin to put in the game,” Mitchell said. “Things have been gone for too long.”
Several economic development organizations in southern West Virginia already have applied to new federal funding competitions, for the creation of site-ready parks like what was once touted for Hobet. Logan, Mingo and Cabell county groups applied for some of roughly $100 million that the federal government has made available to boost coal communities, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Lawmakers are trying to use these and other federal spending initiatives as a jumping off point for economic development discussions. When asked what makes this latest project different from all of the previous ones that never materialized, delegates working on the Coal Communities Comeback Plan say that it’s all the money that’s available.
There were direct payments to local governments from the last COVID-19 relief bill in March. Delegates also mentioned trillions of dollars from two pieces of federal legislation: a massive infrastructure bill that passed Congress last week and a piece of pending legislation that would invest heavily in social policies and fighting climate change. Members of the Biden administration’s interagency task force wrote in an April report that there’s nearly $38 billion available through various federal departments, which the group recommended coalfield counties spend on infrastructure, like broadband and water systems, in addition to critical sites like schools and hospitals.
“Energy [c]ommunities that often suffered from years of disinvestment, even during the boom times of the traditional energy economy, require foundational infrastructure investments to access the benefits of the innovation economy,” the report said.
With all this money comes a sense of urgency, especially for southern West Virginia, which the report identified as the area with the most need.
“We’ve got an opportunity here to use this money for the greater good of West Virginia,” Delegate Evans said at the Logan County event.
For Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, it’s the funding that sets this effort apart from previous state-led proposals.
“I don’t think we knew where any type of infrastructure funding would come from,” Stollings said. “And even though we had some state money initially, it just didn’t pan out. They were going to redirect things to different places.”
While state lawmakers won’t have full authority over all this funding, they say the ideas they’re hearing in these meetings will inform upcoming legislation. Delegate Dean says working group members are also planning legislation to provide small business loans and a pot of local funds to match federal dollars, based on what they’ve heard so far in southern West Virginia.
“We all care. It’s not just a group of politicians,” Dean said. “We just want to see this effort lead to sustainable change, or sustainable economic growth. I think we as a group are dedicated to that. …. I think the thing that’s going to be different is the follow-through you see.”
But the group is still up against a history of many unfulfilled promises of economic revitalization. They plan to have another two meetings in Monongalia and Marshall counties this week, and eventually a meeting in McDowell County.