Part II – It’s an even longer road back

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Photo by Tim Cox

I spent time last month in deep Southwestern Virginia.  About a year ago as you may recall, I wrote about the long road to Wise.  This year was no different, a roundtrip of 744 miles.  Many Virginians never realize just how far they can travel without leaving our state.

In the Southwest, there is always talk of what’s happened to coal and mining jobs, both there and elsewhere.  But looking at current events, our politicians have become the new miners — not for coal, but for votes.  After all, who wouldn’t trade a vote for a job?

Promises of work in coal country were plentiful during the election season.  But they since have been followed by announcements from Dominion Energy and Appalachian Electric Power that, regardless of whether the Clean Power Plan is scuttled, both companies will be lessening their dependence on coal.  It’s what their shareholders want, cleaner sources of fuel.  Utility companies must make decisions that will last for decades to come, and coal remains in the rearview mirror.

Natural gas has become more plentiful and is also a lot cheaper than coal.  Even the Chinese, notorious carbon emission abusers, announced they’d like to begin importing more liquid natural gas to lessen their country’s dependence on coal.

It looks like politicians are becoming the only winners.  A new generation of locals has heard more promises of coal coming back than they’ve seen of the coal itself.  It’s gone; the jobs are gone; and they aren’t coming back, at least not those jobs.

There’s a hard truth in rural areas; it’s just as hard as the region is beautiful.  Many people don’t want to live here; it’s isolated, it can even be lonely, as lonely as it is friendly.  More people are in the cities, and there will always be more people in the cities.  By 2050, urban residents are expected to represent two-thirds of the population.

For decades, rural areas have always come up short in the struggle for workforce. The quality of life may be great in terms of scenery and the outdoors, but other amenities are in short supply.

The labor force participation rate in Southwest Virginia is about 50 percent. That means half of the population has aged out, gone on disability or simply given up looking.

Painkillers are plentiful, but they are just that — killers.  Opioids are treated as a social welfare problem, but they are shipped and prescribed in mass quantities because that’s one of the dysfunctional ways that health care fails in America today.

Reading the local news in the Coalfield Progress, I found an article about the national budget.  Despite election year promises of help for the coalfields, the president’s initial budget proposed deep cuts to agencies and programs that have long supported the people and local governments in Southwest Virginia.  Home weatherization and energy assistance, community development block grants, rural water and waste management programs were all on the chopping block.

Elimination of entire agencies, such as the Economic Development Administration and the Appalachian Regional Commission, and the closing of Job Corps centers were also in the president’s proposed budget.  These agencies have been providing assistance to rural areas for decades.

Only a last-minute compromise and a continuing spending resolution kept these proposed federal cuts from taking place until the end of September.  Afterward, who knows?

The reason I traveled to Wise was to attend the SWVA Economic Summit.  Listening to local delegates, there was some pride in having partially staved off big state budget cuts to local education based on declines in the student population.  Education is, after all, where economic development begins.

There was also some legitimate hope for GO Virginia and the recent reorganization at the Virginia Economic Development Partnership.  However, aside from these recent reshufflings of deck chairs, what else does Virginia have to show for its commitment to rural areas?
Think back.  In 2007 Volkswagen Group of America chose Northern Virginia for its headquarters location.  Ten months later the company chose Chattanooga, Tenn., for a new assembly plant.  The plant created thousands of jobs that ostensibly could have gone to rural Virginia.

Despite the too-easy answer that Virginia is now ready for such an opportunity, how much has really changed over the last decade?  Do we have the infrastructure that Chattanooga had ready and waiting?  Do we have the competitive incentives needed to win? Volkswagen officials chose Chattanooga from three sites; the others were in Alabama and Michigan.  Apparently, Virginia didn’t make that list.

How much has really changed?

While anything is possible, only one thing is certain, it’s a long way back from Wise.

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