MAN — After graduating from Logan High School about a dozen years ago, Naaman Spry knew he didn’t want a job in the coal mines. He never imagined he would end up baby-sitting 350,000 fish two nights a week.
Yet as an aquaculture technician for West Virginia Aqua LLC, Spry stays overnight two nights each week making sure the adolescent fish in the indoor tanks here grow stress-free. West Virginia Aqua is the 4-year-old company that brought Arctic char into the consciousness of state economic developers and onto the forks of food lovers from The Greenbrier to the Tarragon restaurant at the Charleston Marriott.
Arctic char, it seems, are a bit fussy. “If the power goes off, they go crazy. They need to have light,” said Spry. Who knew?
Spry returned to West Virginia last year to be closer to his family, quitting a job in North Carolina that went bad. “I kind of lucked into this. It was very different.”
He wasn’t expecting the level of stress the job entails. “I went from dealing with furniture to dealing with fish. You don’t have to worry about furniture dying in the middle of the night.”
It still beats working in the mines, he says. He saw too many neighbors and relatives end up crippled to want that life. “Now they can’t walk, or their hands are messed up and they can’t pick up a drink. The money might be good but it wasn’t for me.”
Even as Logan County and its neighbors produce as much coal as ever, mining jobs continue to dwindle. Job data kept by the state Bureau of Employment Programs show that the 11 counties that make up the Southern Coal Fields region for this series — Boone, Fayette, Lincoln, Logan, McDowell, Mercer, Mingo, Nicholas, Raleigh, Summers and Wyoming — have lost about 26,000 mining jobs since 1980. That’s more than two out of three mining jobs in 23 years.
As a result, young people and laid-off miners are forced to look elsewhere for jobs, either to different industries or to different locations. Each of the 10 coalfield counties has lost population since 1980. Most have lost more than the state decline of 7.5 percent during the period.
McDowell County has lost the most people — 47.6 percent or nearly half its population — in just 23 years. Wyoming County has lost more than 30 percent and Mingo and Logan lost more than one in four residents.
Economic developers for years have emphasized the need to break the region’s reliance on the coal industry. Today you can see some results, like the fish-raising operation where Spry works.
Just down Rockhouse Branch Road from the grow-out facility you can see more evidence of the new economy — a trailhead for the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System, also about 4 years old.
In the next county over, Mike Whitt of the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority ticked off some more ventures. “We’ve got a wood products site here. We’ve got a golf course. Now we’re getting some roads put in. We’re trying to build an airport.”
Visitors to many of these sites will find, however, that the old coal economy is still very much alive and kicking in Southern West Virginia. To get to Spry’s workplace, for example, you have to sign in at a Hampden Coal Co. guardhouse, and you might dodge a few coal trucks along the way.
The same is true at the James H. “Buck” Harless Wood Products Industrial Park, located a few miles up 22 Mine Road off Corridor G. Look out for the coal trucks leaving Massey Energy’s Alex Energy mountaintop removal mine along the way.
The wood products park itself, home to a Columbia Wood Products dry kiln and flooring plant, is located on a reclaimed mountaintop removal mine site. Here, too, you have to check in at a guard shack.
One of the drawbacks of the Columbia plant’s isolated location, human resources director Gwen Watson said, is some trucking firms refuse to serve it. “It limits our options,” she said.
Business is booming, nonetheless. About 240 employees in two shifts crank out an average of 200,000 square feet of pre-finished, solid oak, tongue-and-groove boards each week.
Watson said she transferred to the Mingo County site from Wisconsin early this year when Columbia Flooring decided to take a more active role in running what has been called the Appalachian Precision Hardwood Flooring plant.
Employees commute for up to an hour or more each way to their jobs, she said, including some from Kentucky. “I interview a lot of people who worked in the mines. It’s about 50/50 male/female.”
One problem Whitt has in trying to lure companies to Mingo County — one shared by economic developers throughout the rugged coalfields — is a lack of available sites.
“If they need anything larger than five acres, it’s difficult,” he said. Mine companies may be leaving behind relatively level terrain, but the sites lack utilities and easy access.
Whitt blamed weak regulations, which provided no incentive for mine companies to plan for post-mining development. “It’s just sad: We’ve lost 30 or 40 years where we could have developed our infrastructure.”
Several years ago, the Mingo County Commission adopted a master land-use plan under which coal companies must work with county officials to plan for post-mining uses, he said. “We’re trying to get control of our own destiny.”
As an example, Premium Energy is doing the rough grading for a 3-mile segment of Interstate 73/74 (The King Coal Highway) as the post-mining use at its mine near Wharncliff, Whitt said. When completed, I-73/74 will stretch from Detroit to Myrtle Beach.
More than 400 miles of trails
In downtown Pineville, don’t be alarmed if you see ATVs tooling around the city streets. It’s perfectly legal, thanks to a new city ordinance that supporters of the Hatfield-McCoy Trails pushed through the Wyoming County community. ATV riders are also welcome to drive into Matewan and Gilbert to refuel their vehicles or stop at a restaurant under similar laws, said Mike Pinkerton, marketing director for the trail system.
“We have a general ordinance we’ve asked towns to pass,” he said. “We have 27 municipalities in our area. You can imagine the confusion if we had 27 different ordinances.”
Since the first three trail systems opened in October 2000, use of the trails has exploded, Pinkerton said. Trail officials hope to sell about 25,000 permits this year, including about 10,000 annual passes, up from 5,000 permits the first year.
According to user surveys, a typical rider stays three days and spends between $250 and $500 on his or her trip. A conservative estimate — 250,000 riders times $250 — yields a direct economic impact this year of more than $6 million, Pinkerton said.
Most of the riders, about four out of five, come from out of state. They typically stay at the campgrounds and motels that have sprung up around the trailheads in Mingo, Logan and Boone counties. At least two new motels — The Best Western Logan Inn in Chapmanville and another Delbarton — were built specifically to serve the ATV trade, Pinkerton said.
Greg Bender and his sons Cody and Austin fit the mold. On Tuesday, they explored some of the 115 miles trails in the Browning Fork Trail System near Man. They were in the middle of three-day riding vacation from Waynesville, N.C.
“It’s our first time here,” Greg Bender said. “We found it on the Internet. It’s a fun sport and a family sport, but it’s hard to find places to ride.”
Bender said he offered the boys a trip to the beach, but they chose off-road riding. “I don’t have to worry about what they’ll be doing tonight. They’ll be worn out. We’ll be back,” he added.
Like Kabul, Afghanistan
Mike Hicks, associate professor of economics at Marshall University and director of research at the school’s Center for Business and Economic Research, is well known among folks like Mike Whitt as the guy who collects the “gloom and doom” statistics about the coalfields.
Hicks, who has been studying the region for years, said the decline in coal jobs really started in the 1950s, with a brief respite in the late ’70s and early ’80s during the oil crisis. The 1974 oil embargo doubled coal prices in about two years, he said.
“As a result, everybody that could mine coal mined coal. It was extremely profitable. Then in 1982 the oil crisis ended and energy prices began a long-term decline to 2000, which meant boom times were over in the coalfields. More than half the mines in West Virginia closed by the 1990s.”
McDowell County, which in 1980 had 7,200 mining jobs, the most of any of the 11 coalfield counties, lost an incredible 90 percent of those jobs by 2003. Mercer went from 890 to 34.
Tourism has helped softened the blow in some of the eastern counties of the region, Hicks said, like Fayette, Raleigh and Nicholas. Service jobs have clustered in Beckley, the area’s biggest city, he said.
Other counties aren’t so lucky, and Hicks has the demographic numbers to prove it. An aging population is one sign.
“Some of the Census tracts we’ve looked at in McDowell and Wyoming counties have a median age in excess of 50 years.
“In McDowell County, almost exactly half of the income earned by the population is in the form of transfer payments like welfare, workers’ compensation, Social Security disability or other retirement benefits. What that suggests is more than half of the households in McDowell County are headed by retirees.
“The other social indicators have received a lot of press — the highest obesity rates, the highest cancer rates, highest loss of teeth, smoking. About half of these rates can be explained by the older population, but the rest are social indicators. We have educational attainment rates that do not rank these counties with anywhere in the world.
“For example, in McDowell County the high school graduation rate is about 50 percent. In Kabul, Afghanistan, about half the adult males are literate. That makes McDowell County exactly comparable to Kabul.” The numbers in Lincoln, Wyoming and Logan counties are better, but just barely.
“It’s really this education attainment that makes these counties unattractive to companies. We’ve surveyed employers, and frankly a high school graduate in West Virginia is viewed as simply a most basic element of employability. Without a diploma, you’re useful for only intermittent manual labor.”
Half empty, half full
If Hicks sees the region’s glass as half empty, Bill Loope sees it as half full. “He [Hicks] can talk about the trends, but they don’t have to be our destiny,” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight.” As executive director of the Region 1 Workforce Investment Board, Loope oversees an 11-county region that overlaps about half of the 11 coalfield counties.
“The No. 1 challenge is a syndrome of low expectations,” he said. “There are an awful lot of communities that have lost hope. You change that using small successes that will instill a sense of accomplishment and hope. It will be a slow process.
“A second problem is the level of education.” In Wyoming County, for example, 32 percent of the adults have trouble reading a job application. That’s where Loope’s group hopes to help.
“Work force boards are working to rectify the problem, but it’s usually offset by disappointing news — funds are cut or adult education centers are being closed.
“We are going to assemble a delegation to go to Charleston and Washington to improve adult education. I just can’t fathom the Legislature allowing adult education funds in Southern West Virginia to be cut.
“If we create a highly skilled work force, we’ll be able to attract jobs,” Loope said.
Arnie Hassen, point man for a project called the Nick J. Rahall II High Technology Corridors Program, is trying to bring broadband Internet technology to 11 southeastern counties. The idea is that broadband is key infrastructure link needed to lure the kinds of companies, and people, needed to transform the economy.
“You look at whatever technology is available. It could be cable, it could be wireless. The obstacles are old copper/lack of fiber and an insufficient customer base. We’re trying to aggregate consumers.
“Some communities are doing well, some are severely underserved. Bluefield has several providers, Ronceverte is very poor, places like Rainelle have very poor service.”
The Rahall program is not trying to compete with the more mature high-tech corridor along I-79 near Morgantown, Hassen said. “They’ve got the technology park and the university. This is a different region, smaller communities. We’re looking for economic development more in keeping with a rural region.”
Recruiting efforts are hampered by the old economy of Southern West Virginia, said Judy Radford, executive director of the 4-C Economic Development Authority in Beckley. Her agency covers four counties — Raleigh, Fayette, Summers and Nicholas.
“For years the economy was geared toward coal,” she said. “Now, if a building is available, we have to retrofit it. As companies come through, they have a shorter and shorter time frame.”
One potential site may require more sewer capacity, Radford said. “By the time a company comes through, it’s too late.”
Still, some positive things are happening in her area. The Raleigh County Airport Park is about to add 300 acres, she said. “The funding is in place. We’re about to break ground.”
Raleigh County, in fact, may be feeling the negative effects of some recent economic improvements. The Appalachian Regional Commission last year upgraded Raleigh from “distressed” to “transitional,” meaning it gets less ARC funding these days, Radford said. Summers County got the nod this year.
“In the city of Hinton they have created a technology center,” she said. “Nicholas County has a lot going on. They’re building a conference center; that’s a city of Summersville project. It’s not far from the geographic center of the state.
“Then in Fayette County we have Wolf Creek Park, a live-work-learn-and-play park between Fayetteville and Mount Hope. We want to develop a light industrial park on one half and housing on the other, with an educational center. It’s right in the center of rafting country.”
Boone County may not offer river rafting, but it does have off-road riding now that the Hatfield-McCoy Trails opened the Little Coal River Trail network. The Waterways trailhead is conveniently located just off Corridor G beside the water park of the same name.
“We need to diversify; there’s no doubt about it,” said Larry Lodato, director of Boone County Community and Economic Development. “We have several sites. We have one company that’s looking. I can’t say anything about it,” he said hopefully.
On a percentage basis, Boone County lost fewer coal jobs than most of its neighbors in the last two decades. “We have the most employment of coal miners in the state; 3,000,” Lodato said. “That produces coal severance money the county commission has put to good use.”
If you don’t have a coal job, however, you might have to commute to Kanawha County to find work. Many do so along Corridor G, Lodato said, or over Lens Creek Mountain from the Racine area.
“The challenges are to get water to the Interstate [Corridor G]. We feel development will follow the water. It’s a chicken and egg thing. We haven’t hit any home runs. We’ve hit some singles.”
In the ballpark of economic development, West Virginia Aqua would probably be considered a single. General manager Jonathon Browning said about 10 people work at the grow-out facility in Man and the hatchery in Mingo County. A planned processing facility, where market-sized fish would be cleaned and gutted, would create another eight jobs in a year.
Water for the grow-out tanks in Man comes from a spring in an old underground coal mine uphill from the plant, growout manager Greg Ellis said. The water is cool, clean and acid-free.
Long-range plans call for more grow-out facilities in other coalfield counties if and when money and water supplies can be found. A half-dozen jobs here and there won’t replace all the lost mining jobs. But if they can keep a few more folks like Naaman Spry from seeking their fortunes in North Carolina, it’s a start.
To contact staff writer Jim Balow, use e-mail or call 348-5102.