A sign at the side of the road in Williamson, West Virginia, tells visitors that they are entering “the heart of the billion dollar coal field.” Coal is still king in central Appalachia, but it isn’t the dependable employer it once was. About one-quarter of people living in Mingo County are below the federal poverty level, and with soaring diabetes rates, the county ranks as one of unhealthiest in the state.
Instead of addressing those problems separately, community leaders in fields ranging from renewable energy to health and wellness joined forces in 2011 to form a wide-ranging grassroots initiative called Sustainable Williamson. The group aims to create a diverse local economy, while promoting healthy lifestyles and green technology. Since the campaign was launched, solar panels have been cropping up on the roofs of local businesses; community gardens have been established; and the group has enacted an action plan to make the town’s public buildings more energy efficient.
Sustainable Williamson seeks to tackle the lack of economic diversity in the region, says Eric Mathis, a board member for the Williamson Redevelopment Authority. For too long, people have relied on large coal companies to provide jobs, and as coal production has declined, regional economies have followed. “We’re diversifying revenue streams for local governments,” says Mathis. “So as we transition away from our dependency on coal, these counties within central Appalachia don’t die, and they can maintain their overall revenue base.”
Mathis has ambitious plans to develop residential- and commercial-scale solar across West Virginia, but he’s careful not to distance himself too much from the region’s coal mining legacy. Instead, he wants his renewable energy projects to complement existing mining operations.
“You have to understand, when you go into southern West Virginia, you better be real careful if you’re using the word ‘green,'” says Tracey Rowan, the regional director of USDA Rural Development. Many people in the area have lost jobs because the EPA refused to issue mining permits, creating an easy scapegoat for the region’s economic struggles. “All [sustainability] meant in the past in this area was anti-coal. And obviously it means much more than that.”
Mathis wants to work directly with fossil fuel companies to develop what he describes as “integrated energy parks,” which would include large solar arrays alongside active coal mines and natural gas drilling operations. By supplementing solar energy with existing fossil fuel projects, he hopes to be able to meet grid demands. Later, Mathis plans to use former surface mine land to produce energy from sources ranging from solar to biofuel.
Sustainable Williamson isn’t banking on Mathis’s energy projects to single-handedly revitalize the area, though. Tourism has also emerged recently as a viable generator of economic activity.
Last fall, Williamson Mayor Darrin McCormick announced plans to develop a large new campground on 20 acres of reclaimed mine land. The campground, which will be built in five phases, will sit at the edge of the popular Hatfield-McCoy Trail, a 600-mile network of ATV and dirt bike trails that has helped spark a surge in tourism to the area. The campground is designed to be profitable, and the money raised will go towards improving other recreational facilities in the town of Williamson.
Green construction is another area where Sustainable Williamson hopes to create new jobs. At the center of the plan is a building known as the “Smart Office,” a hub for renewable energy job training and a space from which renewable energy companies will be able to manage their operations. The Smart Office, which is somewhat ironically located just next door to The Coal House, a 1933 building that was built almost entirely from coal, is aiming to become West Virginia’s first LEED Platinum office space. The Smart Office will serve as a demonstration project, and it will also give local construction firms an opportunity to work with new technologies.
With so many different initiatives included under the Sustainable Williamson umbrella, it might be easy to write the group off as being unfocused. But Rowan says that in an area where there are so many obstacles to new development, it makes sense to take an inclusive, holistic approach to sustainability.
A big part of winning people over is showing them results. “Sometimes, if you have that hopeless feeling, to know that you have to do another study before you can get something done causes people to just give up,” says Rowan. So it’s important for Sustainable Williamson to develop a mixture of smaller, “shovel-ready” projects alongside long-term developments. The farmers market has already made a big impact on the community, says Rowan, and ongoing job-training programs are helping to make people believe in the big picture.
Ultimately, Sustainable Williamson hopes to create an economic transition model that can be replicated in other towns across the entire Appalachian region. The group is already succeeding in changing people’s attitudes towards renewable energy and sustainability, but there’s still plenty of work to be done.
Construction started earlier this year on the Smart Office; solar panels and high-performance windows were installed, but work has stalled for lack of funding. A crowd-sourced Indiegogo fundraising campaign that launched this spring netted only 4% of the $300,000 the group set out to raise, forcing Mathis to pursue other financing options. Despite the setback, he insists that the project will be completed. “Even if I have to do it coming out of my own pocket, that thing is going to be built,” Mathis says.