Heading Into Coal Country
BIG STONE GAP/MOUNTAIN EMPIRE COMMUNITY COLLEGE:
When I think of economic development in Southwest Virginia, I think of drones. And when I think of drones, I think of Jack Kennedy. Jack, a former State Senator and current Clerk of the Courts in Wise, has been the cheerleader in the region and in Richmond about the possibilities that drones present.
Jack has worked with Mountain Empire Community College to present educational options for those who want to work in this emerging field. Fred Coeburn is the guru on constructing, programming, and actually flying drones. He is so solid, yet inspirational, I am sure his program is attracting students from all over the region and state.
Hunt and I spent a couple hours with Vicky Ratliff and Andi Kilgore learning about the educational programs as well as the potential uses of drones. Andi and her firm, Flirtey, are leaders in drone delivery systems. Their goal is to save lives and improve lifestyles by making delivery instant for everyone. They received international attention a couple years ago when Dominos used their drones to deliver pizza in New Zealand! Here's a picture of us flying the drones. From left: Jack Kennedy, Andi Kilgore, and Fred Coeburn (I am the one with my head stuck in the virtual reality viewer!)
Interestingly, one of Flirtey's first projects was collaborating with the Health Wagon to deliver medicines to patients in remote areas. It literally can be a lifesaver in these mountains with rough terrain.
Big Stone Gap is a charming town. You may have seen the movie or read the book that literally put the town on the map internationally.
GRUNDY: After a windy, twisty two-hour drive through coal communities, we arrived in Grundy. Grundy is a narrow town tucked between two mountainsides. Even the Walmart is narrow - three stories high because there was so little flat land. Buchanan County is really impoverished. The median income for a family is $27,328. Unemployment is twice the state average. The population has been declining for three decades and currently is 26,000 people.
I had been especially looking forward to this day because Delegate Will Morefield was going to show me around. When first elected six years ago, Will became the youngest person elected to the House since Thomas Jefferson! He is smart, creative and determined to improve prospects in coal country. You may have read the Washington Post article in February about his personal story and tax incentive legislation. (Lawmakers Seek Help For Poorest Areas) Originally I opposed his tax credit proposal. Then Will, whom I didn't really know, spent an hour explaining it to me. I was converted! Call me a "flip-flopper" but it is worth a try to help the region.
We met Will at the Appalachian School of Law. He had driven an hour and half to see us. A stunning building in a beautiful location, the law school is an asset to the area. The 370 students tend to be from the region -SW Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The school insists that students give back to the community every semester. Not surprisingly, graduates tend to go into public service law fields.
The success of the School of Law inspired our next stop: Appalachian College of Pharmacy. Established in 2005, the College is a private doctoral pharmacy school. I found the visit intriguing -I didn't know much about the field. Dean Susan Mayhew and President Michael ("Micky") McGlothlin showed us the campus, which like everywhere else in the area is breathtaking. They believe pharmacists could be key to providing healthcare in these remote areas. Pharmacists have training that is not being sufficiently utilized. The College runs the Mountain Care Center, which provides health screenings, medication management, and prescription assistance for those without insurance. While visiting, we stumbled on students studying the role of music in healing.
POPLAR GAP: The mountainous terrain presents difficulties for economic developers. If there are no flat areas, how do you locate factories or even soccer fields? Poplar Gap is a 1500-acre answer to the problem. Strip mining removed the top of a mountain and left a large, flat opportunity zone that local officials are counting on for development. Currently they have recreational facilities, a call center, and a few homes. They are counting on a short four-lane extension to connect them with other four-lane highways across the Kentucky border. In fact, two high two-lane bridges have already been constructed in anticipation of the four lane highway. Recently, VDOT announced that the connector would be only two lanes, instead of the planned four. So, we are on the verge of a bridge to nowhere. I hope VDOT changes its position. A two-lane road would not help the region develop as much.
I do have to be a tad snide and envious. The main roads throughout Southwest are excellent and there is no congestion. In fact, during the whole journey we never had a single traffic backup.
ATV RECREATION: The Southern Gap Trailhead ATV Resort is a relatively new but growing private endeavor. Connected to extensive trails, it is attracting tourists. Here are the leaders of the resort along with Will Morefield on the left.
Will Morefield and I are from different parties, different regions, different generations, and different genders. But, we can and will work together. He has several intriguing ideas on how our regions can work together for the benefit of both. Hunt and I invited him to stay with us a couple days in the fall so I can introduce him to business and technology leaders in Northern Virginia. He has accepted - I hope something concrete and positive will come out of his visit!
It was a three-and-a-half-hour drive to our next and last stop, Roanoke.
THE ROANOKE TIMES: Dwayne Yancey is the editor of the paper and was instrumental in generating interest in our trip. He wrote editorials about it and asked folks to give us advice on what to see. So, Hunt, Augie, and I stopped by the Times to chat about our experiences. He asked piercing questions that helped focus my thinking.
More than two hundred people met with us during our eleven-day, 1238-mile trip through Southside and Southwest Virginia. They honestly shared with us the opportunities and challenges facing their hometowns. They care deeply about their communities. Most are optimistic that the worst of the economic dislocation is behind them. Job creation and preparing the workforce is a top priority. Lots of creative approaches are happening. Partnerships between the public and private sectors are everywhere.
However, all realize that they are facing serious social problems. Specifically, substance abuse is destroying many youth and disrupting the social fabric. Access to healthcare is a critical need. As was pointed out by the Health Wagon doctors, even with Medicaid expansion half the population will lack access to care.
Education is a focus everywhere. The community colleges, the New College Institute, and specialized colleges are agile and responding to workforce needs. Increasingly emphasis is being placed on credentials rather than degrees.
Because it is summer, we didn't visit public schools. However, virtually everyone mentioned how stressed they are. Some are abandoned, due to declining enrollment, and most of the remaining buildings are in need of renovation. There is a severe teacher shortage (which is a statewide problem).
Local elected officials are showing political courage. Several communities have raised taxes to better support their schools. Given this is a deep red part of the state, I found that surprising and encouraging.
Communities like Danville and Martinsville have an asset not found elsewhere - well-endowed community foundations that can spark and support change. Sadly, Danville's most disadvantaged are being harmed by a slumlord predator named Spanky (I mistakenly called him Sparky in a previous posting). We need to strengthen laws to put such evildoers out of business if not in prison.
Southside also is slowly overcoming the legacy of segregation. African American leaders say there has been much progress over the past fifty years but there is still a long way to go. Southwest is really not very diverse - only about five percent are nonwhite.
In my opinion, there are too many governmental entities in the regions. Counties, cities, and towns of fewer than 30,000 people are commonplace. This is inefficient and unnecessarily costly. It also leads to competition where collaboration would be more productive. GoVirginia - a state effort to encourage economic growth and cooperation with incentive funds - is having some success breaking down these barriers.
Southwest has tremendous tourist potential. Hunt and I have done a lot of travelling both nationally and internationally and I have never seen a more beautiful and dramatic countryside. Outdoor recreation opportunities are everywhere. Music, especially blue grass, buffs have concerts in almost every community weekly throughout the summer. Summer theatre also is located in several towns. Educational opportunities are topnotch. And, there are several good wineries and breweries!
Southside is cleverly exploring international business ventures. Various institutes are finding a niche with smaller start-ups. Most encouraging for the region is the strong leadership being shown by business and elected leaders.
There are numerous opportunities for collaboration between NoVa and Southside and Southwest. Hopefully, Will Morefield and I can be catalysts for improved relations.
The bottom line, though, is that economic development depends on education opportunities, healthcare, quality of life, and JOBS. The local leadership know this and are working on all these priorities. They are undaunted!
I left the two regions hopeful about their future. Yes, they are the "Extremes of Virginia" as Augie Wallmeyer labeled them in his book outlining their poverty and challenges. But both regions have local leadership who are focused and determined to improve their communities. I think they will succeed.