Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Appalachian Hope

Coal isn’t going to bounce back in West Virginia. But tourism and recreation can replace it.

GOV09_18_UrbanNotebook_770x513
The Greenbrier is a historic country club and resort in West Virginia's coal country.
(Shutterstock)
The small cities of West Virginia are, many of them, quite picturesque. They’re dotted along rivers, among small farms and nestled around mountains. It’s easy to imagine them as boutique little enclaves. But their reality, as we know, is different. 

West Virginia has long been among America’s poorest states, dominated by a coal industry that never brought true prosperity. Now coal use is declining, as are the state’s municipalities. The statewide poverty rate is increasing. For example, McDowell County is part of southern West Virginia, or coal country. Since 1950, its population has dropped from 98,000 to 18,000; per capita income is $14,000 a year; and life expectancy is similar to that of developing African countries, thanks largely to the opioid and meth epidemic. The county is plagued by abandoned buildings and visible signs of poverty, such as “coal camps” full of ramshackle trailers.  

The area itself is beautiful. McDowell’s main route—Coal Heritage Road—winds along the Tug Fork River, through a hollow within one of the most mountainous stretches of Appalachia. The gritty little towns have plenty of character. Yet there’s practically no ecosystem of niche businesses to attract tourists or affluent residents. The Hatfield-McCoy trails, which include a moonshine distillery, are the closest thing I saw to an attraction on a recent 65-mile drive along the route. 

This is a wasted opportunity. In other mountainous parts of America, such as Colorado, Oregon and Virginia, there are plenty of towns that utilize their natural beauty to become destinations. They have ski resorts, golf courses, regional food and beverage hubs, and lively old downtowns. West Virginia could have all this—and even more, due to its rural culture—with commercialized camping, whitewater rafting, ATV tours, and hunting and fishing.

A few places in West Virginia already do, such as Greenbrier County, which also sits in the state’s impoverished southern part. Its largest employer is The Greenbrier, a historic country club and resort that hosts a PGA golf tournament. Several miles away is Lewisburg, once called America’s “coolest small town.” It’s a 3,900-person community centered around a charming town center. Elsewhere in the county are campgrounds for nature tours, a bluegrass festival, and charming bed and breakfasts.

Greenbrier County does not have a dominant industry or a university. It simply has fun things to do, so people visit. This has bolstered its economy, giving it the second-highest median household income in the 13-county southern West Virginia region.

So how can McDowell be like Greenbrier? 

One idea would be to stop thinking of itself as a coal hub. A recent documentary showed that the overwhelming political dialogue in the county is about bringing back coal. But that industry has declined for decades—even more recently, thanks to natural gas. Its decline has hammered coal country. McDowell has an 8.6 percent unemployment rate.

The county needs to explore its real advantages. These can begin with government and business coalitions rebranding the area, changing its regulations and incentives to encourage tourism and other new economy sectors. But it also must happen through individual entrepreneurs opening new enterprises and other businesses that leverage McDowell’s natural beauty. That way, outsiders will want to see a county—and a region of West Virginia—that deserves to be seen.

A journalist who focuses on American urban issues. He can be reached at scott@marketurbanismreport.com or on Twitter at @sbcrosscountry.
Special Projects
Sponsored Stories
Sponsored
In recent years, local governments have been forced to adapt to a wildly changing world, especially as it pertains to sending bills and collecting payments.
Sponsored
Workplace safety is in the spotlight as government leaders adapt to a prolonged pandemic.
Sponsored
While government employees, students and the general public had to wait in line for hours in the beginning of the pandemic, at-home test kits make it easy to diagnose for the novel coronavirus in less than 30 minutes.
Sponsored
Governments around the nation are working to design the best vaccine policies that keep both their employees and their residents safe. Although the latest data shows a variety of polarizing perspectives, there are clear emerging best practices that leading governments are following to put trust first: creating policies that are flexible and provide a range of options, and being in tune with the needs and sentiments of their employees so that they are able to be dynamic and accommodate the rapidly changing situation.
Sponsored
Service delivery and the individual experience within health and human services (HHS) is often very siloed and fragmented.
Sponsored
In this episode, Marianne Steger explains why health care for Pre-Medicare retirees and active employees just got easier.
Sponsored
Government organizations around the world are experiencing the consequences of plagiarism firsthand. A simple mistake can lead to loss of reputation, loss of trust and even lawsuits. It’s important to avoid plagiarism at all costs, and government organizations are held to a particularly high standard. Fortunately, technological solutions such as iThenticate allow government organizations to avoid instances of text plagiarism in an efficient manner.
Sponsored
Creating meaningful citizen experiences in a post-COVID world requires embracing digital initiatives like secure and ethical data sharing, artificial intelligence and more.
Sponsored
GHD identified four themes critical for municipalities to address to reach net-zero by 2050. Will you be ready?