CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Community organizers, business boosters, labor officials and religious leaders joined Wednesday to try to jumpstart what they said are long-overdue discussions -- and actions -- to diversify the economy of West Virginia's coalfields.
A variety of speakers and audience members from nonprofit organizers, government agencies, academia and the private sector said the effort simply can't wait any longer, given the steep ongoing decline in Southern West Virginia's coal industry.
Everyone from political leaders to average West Virginians need to face -- and even embrace -- the notion that the state's future economy isn't going to look like its past economy, according to those many who spoke at or attended the day-long session called "A Bright Economic Future for the Mountain State."
The event, sponsored by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the West Virginia Community Development Hub, prompted agreement and consensus, presenting a stark contrast to continuing battles over coal mining issues like mountaintop removal and climate change.
"There certainly is an element in our state that doesn't want things to change, and we have to overcome that," said Matt Ballard, president of the Charleston Area Alliance. "When we talk about West Virginia's future, we have to understand that it's not going to look like our past."
Jeremy Richardson, a UCS fellow and West Virginia native, put together the economic diversity event as part of a project examining the state's coal economy, coal's decline, and the industry's role in global warming.
Richardson, who comes from a family of miners, said the state is rightly proud of its heritage of producing coal to power the nation's energy and steel needs. But he said most residents really have a complicated relationship to the coal industry.
"It's really hard to say, 'Is coal good or is coal bad'?" Richardson said. "The answer is, 'yes.' It's both."
But noting government projections for a steep decline in production in the state's southern coalfields, Richardson said the need for diversification is clear.
"The path we are on is not sustainable," Richardson said. "We need to face that reality head on."
Keith Burdette, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's commerce secretary, said the administration focuses quite a lot on economic diversification, especially on projects in which the Marcellus Shale natural gas boom could revive the state's chemical and manufacturing industries.
"We are all about diversity of West Virginia's economy," Burdette said. "That's all we do."
But when asked to list three specific actions the administration has taken to help soften the blow for the ongoing decline in Southern West Virginia coal that's expected to continue for some time, Burdette was at a bit of a loss.
"Well, look, I'd like to tell you there is some master scheme in every section of the state," Burdette said. "But the challenge we have in the coal-producing areas of the state is that it's a lucrative profession ... it's awfully difficult to motivate these folks into a different career path if the one they've enjoyed for so long might still be available.
"There is going to be a huge transition, regardless," Burdette said. "As some of the fields play out, we will have communities that need to find a new way of life."
The only specific effort Burdette could cite to help with that search was "Reconnecting McDowell," a partnership to boost that county's educational system as a path toward economic improvements.
"That's probably [items] 1, 2 and 3 is that one effort," Burdette said. "But if we can make it work there, we can make it work anywhere else in the state."