Randy Yohe Published

Grant Commission Targets Funding Help To Coalfield Communities

Downtown Welch, W.Va., in McDowell County, which is one of the top regions in the U.S. where people don't vote.

“Effective from Passage” is West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s ongoing, occasional series that explores the greater impact of bills passed by the West Virginia Legislature and signed by the governor. Check out more of these stories here.

As part of our ongoing, occasional series “Effective from Passage,” we take a closer look at a bill intended to bring relief to our coalfield region.

The passage of House Bill 4479 establishes the Coalfield Communities Grant Facilitation Commission. The objective is funneling federal dollars to revitalize coalfield communities.

Del. Ed Evans, D-McDowell, was a lead sponsor of the law. The coalfield resident saw a prime example of the revitalization this commission could help with – right in his own backyard.

“Down here in McDowell County, I think about the Walmart building that we have sitting empty,” Evans said. “We’ve got the Magic Mart building also sitting empty.”

Evans said with help, new businesses could emerge in those empty but solid structures.

“Why couldn’t we manufacture the very ATVs that are dragged hundreds of miles here to McDowell County to ride the Hatfield McCoy trails?” Evans said. “We could be making those things right here and putting people to work.”

The newly formed commission could help that happen. Small town officials apply for federal funding for all sorts of things like grants to rehabilitate their water system or enhance historic tourist attractions. But that federal funding often requires matching funds that small towns don’t have. That’s where state money can come in hand, and Evans expects that funding to be substantial.

“I’ve heard that the governor could put in as much as $250 million. I certainly hope he does,” Evans said. “That money would be used to pull down matching grants from the federal government from the money that the President Biden’s interagency working group put together, and it’s for Coalfield and powerplant communities.”

Secretary of Economic Development Mitch Carmichael will serve as the commission chairperson. He said a quarter billion dollars or more in seed funding was feasible and provides a much needed start.

“If the federal government provides that kind of money, yes, it’s a very workable number,” Carmichael said. “And I commend the legislature and the governor for taking this initiative because the coalfield communities have been negatively impacted. And we need to make sure that they have long term sustainable growth.”

So who gets the grant funding? Some of the initial targets laid out in a federal study include Greenbrier, Logan, McDowell, Mercer, Mingo, Monroe, Nicholas Pocahontas, Summers, Webster and Wyoming counties.

Carmichael said once the commission is formed, it will decide on designated target communities.

The legislation also requires the commission to include representatives from the coalfield communities themselves, from non-profits, from higher education and from business and industry representatives.

Carmichael said a broad spectrum of commission members creates a better understanding of what’s most needed for coal community revitalization.

“We’re going to focus primarily on infrastructure and economic activity from my perspective,” Carmichael said. “And then when we pull in the other entities that are involved in the commission, you’re looking at restoring downtown areas, making investments in coalfield communities with housing stock, tearing down dilapidated buildings, ensuring safety and security in these areas and a recreational opportunity.”

Evans is hoping for all these big economic improvements to turn around his region. But he said action could start with bringing basic needs up to par with the rest of the state.

“We need to look at more first responders. We don’t have nearly what we need,” Evans said. “And I hope some of that money will go toward training first responders and maybe even some encouragement to be a first responder whether it’s a volunteer fireman or working for one of the ambulance services.”

The commission is charged with providing vocational and entrepreneurial training for displaced coal miners and others who have lost jobs or closed businesses in the region. Much of that retraining has often been too far away. Out-of-work miners have struggled with traveling 200 miles to learn a new skill. Carmichael said the distance aspect of retraining will be addressed.

“I think we can certainly provide mobile training and bring our training to those who need it,” Carmichael said. “And provide transportation and so forth. We have some great training programs in our community and technical college system, as well as higher education systems.”

One of the biggest challenges for small coalfield communities is finding grant writers. This commission is charged with providing expert training in developing, applying for, and administering grants. Evans said there are already firm commitments.

“We had a Zoom meeting with Mrs. Gayle Manchin, who’s the chairman, as you know, of the Appalachian Regional Commission,” Evans said. “And she promised us all the help when needed and as far as technical support in writing these grants.”

Kristi Wood-Turner is the assistant dean of Community Engagement at West Virginia University. She said in successful grant writing, inspiring mission statements that tie to a community’s strengths is one part. Part two is proving they can follow through.

“Are they the people that are supporting and collecting for this grant? Are they doing creative and innovative partnerships?” Wood-Turner said. “Are they utilizing other resources that they have available to them to show a more engaged effort than just those folks that are writing the grant so they are looking at the bigger picture? Are you utilizing the skills this small community already has and using what we can provide you as a resource to enhance that kind of skill and partnership that they have?”

Carmichael understands that many state promises of coalfield revitalization have gone unfulfilled. He believes this commission, getting the expected funding and implementing a well thought out process, will provide substantial change.

“I think they should have a healthy degree of skepticism and, and hold us accountable for delivering the promises that are made within this piece of legislation,” Carmichael said. “And so we want to work with them to alleviate their concerns and to show real progress.”

Carmichael said the Coalfield Communities Grant Facilitation Commission’s mission is not just revitalization, but long term sustainable growth.

“Effective from Passage” is West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s ongoing, occasional series that explores the greater impact of bills passed by the West Virginia Legislature and signed by the governor. Check out more of these stories here.