Will coal come back? Many West Virginians aren’t just sitting around waiting to find out.
There’s a lot of political rhetoric flying around about what federal government funding to help West Virginia’s coalfield communities, known as POWER +, really means.
Forget your party line stump speeches. I’ll tell you what it means.
It means seed funding for West Virginian entrepreneurs. It means startup funding for new businesses that want to employ other West Virginians. It means converting some of our abandoned coalfield land into recreational and agricultural assets that benefit local people. It means funding vocational training and career education for young West Virginians.
Regardless of where you stand on politics, the coal industry or any other divisive subject, it is hard to argue that this proactive and innovative effort is anything other than good for West Virginia’s future.
I’m sitting in a conference room off the interstate with about 70 West Virginian business owners, economic development agents, community leaders and entrepreneurs that are pitching projects that they hope will receive some funding from the federal government’s POWER + package to create new economic opportunities in their communities.
And a lot of the ideas give me great hope that we are ready to evolve the region’s economy, from the dominant monoculture of yore, to a more diversified economy with more small- and medium-sized employers.
I’m learning about a plan to develop an Appalachian hardwoods manufacturing facility in a coal-impacted region of West Virginia, to create value-added products from one of the state’s most underutilized natural resources.
I’m learning that work is already underway to increase the number of recreational trail users on the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System from 37,000 a year to 55,000 a year. With the help of a POWER grant, tourism leaders in the southern coalfields want to help locals open lodging businesses and other trail-related services, in order to capitalize on the massive (and growing) number of out-of-state visitors to the trail system. Last year it bought in $22 million to the region, but still there is money being left in visitor’s pockets due to a shortage of accommodation and other businesses serving trail users.
I’m hearing about a fellowship program that will launch this year that with POWER funding will create job placements for West Virginia’s brightest and best young students with major in-state employers.
And, I’m learning about agricultural production businesses in the southern coalfields that, with help from the West Virginia National Guard, are converting abandoned mine lands into orchards and other revenue generating crops.
Regardless of what happens with coal, POWER funding can help West Virginia strengthen its economy, keep local families here and grow new locally-owned businesses.
There is $50 million on the table right now, for solid, collaborative and creative ideas to create new economic drivers in West Virginia’s coal impacted communities. And, if we can put this money to good use, there may be more to come.
If West Virginia can’t, or won’t, apply to put that money to work here, our neighboring states in Appalachia certainly will.
If you want to learn more, get in touch with us. Email The Hub’s Executive Director, Kent Spellman, at firstname.lastname@example.org.