Friday, December 06, 2019

Can a Southwest Virginia Coal Town Reinvent Itself?

Grundy, Virginia.
Here in Virginia rural area politicians continue to run on an agenda of "god, guns and bashing fags" and a majority of residents support Donald Trump who promised to bail them out of their economic plight but instead has mere made a show of hating the same people they hate: non-whites, gays, non-right wing Christians and, of course, liberals. Meanwhile their economic fortunes continue in a death spiral and the younger generations leave for more urban areas and a better financial future.  A lengthy piece in the New York Times looks at the efforts of one Southwest Virginia town's efforts to reinvent itself.  Lots of state and federal monies have been poured in seemingly with little success. The reason, in my view that the article does not address? The area remains very unwelcoming to outsiders and those in the racial and social demographic groups the residents and Trump hate and far too many of the residents cling to form of right wing Christianity that is nothing short of scary to progressive forward thinking people and businesses. No amount of economic development funding is going to change this obstacle to economic rebirth.  Thus, the economic decline and depopulation continues.  Here are article highlights:

GRUNDY, Va. — Jay Rife surveys the landscape — hundreds of flat, grassy acres reclaimed from a spent mountaintop mine once operated by the Paramont Coal Company. A few handsome homes stand on one end of the project. An 80,000-square-foot shell, to house some future manufacturing operation, is being built on another. For the intrepid, there are trails for all-terrain vehicles. There’s an R.V. park. The whole site has been wired for broadband. Elk have been imported from Kentucky for tourists to look at.
Buchanan County, where Grundy sits, has spent $35 million to $40 million on the development, called Southern Gap, some seven miles from town along U.S. 460. Mr. Rife, the head of the county’s Industrial Development Authority, says the project “is going to be the salvation of Buchanan County.”
Few places have had as many shots at deliverance. None, so far, have succeeded in stemming Grundy’s inexorable decline.
This corner of southwestern Virginia has long sought alternatives to coal as a source of sustenance. The Appalachian School of Law, which opened in the 1990s in the shell of Grundy Junior High School, was heralded as a new economic engine, lubricated — of course — with taxpayer funds. So was the Appalachian College of Pharmacy, founded in 2003 some 20 minutes down the road in Oakwood. County officials considered a dental school, but figured it was too expensive. . . . Then there is downtown Grundy itself, much of which was moved up the hill to avoid periodic floodwaters from the Levisa Fork, a tributary of the Big Sandy River.
Virginia estimates that the relocation and flood-proofing projects, started almost 20 years ago, cost $170 million in federal and state funds, more than $170,000 for every woman, man and child living in town today. The Army Corps of Engineers shaved off the flank of a mountain across the river to create an elevated platform on which the new commercial district would sit. Virginia’s Department of Transportation bulldozed much of the old downtown and routed U.S. 460 through it, built on top of a levee protecting what was left of Grundy’s old center. Finally, in 2011, Walmart opened a superstore to anchor the new site, perched somewhat oddly above a two-story, publicly funded parking lot.
Still, the effort does not quite amount to a reinvention. The economic engine is still the one that carried this corner of Appalachia through the 20th century. “We are a one-industry community, and that’s coal,” Mr. Rife said. A few steps from Walmart, an office of Welmore Energy, a coal-producing subsidiary of the Ukrainian steel conglomerate Metinvest, serves as a reminder of that dominance.
And that, today, is a problem. At the peak of coal’s fortunes in the 1970s, more than 35,000 people lived in Buchanan. Over 5,000 worked in the mines. Mr. Rife remembers downtown sidewalks in Grundy, the county seat, packed with thousands of people on weekend shopping expeditions. Karen Brown, the principal of Grundy High School, recalls Porsches and Mercedes-Benzes parked in the high school lot when she went to school there.
Coal is still the most prominent business, employing one in six workers in the county and accounting for one-third of its total wages. But it can no longer support such living standards. . . . The county population has declined to under 22,000, of whom almost 3,500 people receive disability benefits. Over a quarter live in poverty. And it is getting old. The only age group that has grown in the last two decades is the population over 55.
Grundy is hardly unique. It is one of many victims of globalization, technology and other economic dislocations that have wreaked havoc with small-town America. For years, most economists argued that rather than spend millions in pursuit of a new economic engine for such places, it would make more sense to help residents seek opportunities elsewhere.
But the proliferation of towns like Grundy across what used to be the nation’s industrial heartland — stymied by joblessness, awash in opioids and frustration — has prompted a new sense of alarm. . . . Lawrence H. Summers, once a top economic adviser to President Barack Obama, put it this way: “There is probably no issue more important for the political economy of the next 15 years, not just in the United States but around the world, than what happens in the areas that feel rightly that they are falling behind and increasingly left apart.”
Migration, as economists would have predicted, has become an increasingly compelling option: Those lucky enough to find work somewhere else leave. They include Ms. Brown’s two daughters — Peyton, 23, and Bailee, 25 — who last summer followed their husbands from the coal industry to more stable jobs at the Toyota plant in Georgetown, Ky.
Overwhelmingly, they support President Trump, who promised to bring coal back. But it doesn’t look as if they have much faith in the promise. As Hoot Dellinger said, leaning over the edge of his booth, “This community will never prosper again.”
Without prosperity, who will stay? “Ninety percent of the girls become nurses and leave,” Mr. Ward said. “We’ve seen a lot of guys chasing gas up in the Marcellus Shale.” But even moving doesn’t always work out. As shale jobs there have waned, Mr. Ward added, “a lot of them are trying to come back, and there’s nothing to come back to.”
I do not know what the solution is since, far too many refuse to accept that their mind set and right wing religious and social views are perhaps among the biggest obstacles to positive change. 

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