In W.Va., a new air of optimism

Coal industry's comeback, tourism, construction spark resurgence in jobs

June 12, 2006|By JAMIE SMITH HOPKINS | JAMIE SMITH HOPKINS,SUN REPORTER

WELCH, W.Va. -- Coal, which built McDowell County, nearly destroyed it. As technology mechanized the work, jobs were cut. As mineral prices fell, jobs were cut. As easily worked seams disappeared, jobs were cut.

Companies left, and the people did too. McDowell County, once one of the largest coal producers in the nation, lost three-quarters of its population in the past 50 years.

Now, in this poorest corner of the poorest state in the nation, something remarkable is happening: Jobs are coming back.

It's not only here. It's a microcosm of the state. West Virginia is benefiting from a recharged coal industry at the same time that construction and tourism also are going strong. Its unemployment rate has dipped below 4 percent in recent months, better than the nation - better than the state has ever seen.

It is by no means a complete turnaround. The bad years have exacted a toll that can be seen in every exhausted building in danger of collapsing into the mountainside. But there is finally enough momentum to get somewhere.

The number of producing mines statewide jumped by 20 percent last year as soaring coal prices - now $52 a ton compared with $22 in early 2000 - led companies to start new operations and reopen old ones. National retail chains are moving in, particularly around Morgantown. A Toyota plant near Charleston keeps expanding.

"There's a real feeling of optimism in the state right now that we may have turned a corner," said Calvin A. Kent, a business professor at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va. "We still have major problems we have to overcome, but on the whole, it's nice to be in a position where we can say, `Come back to West Virginia. We have well-paying jobs here if you come back.'"

Bob Johnson, 65, can attest to that. For years he saw his family in McDowell County only every other weekend because he had to roam the country, building coal conveyor systems. Now he stays home.

"We've got three jobs going on around here, all in McDowell," he said over the rumble of trucks.

Some West Virginia counties are growing quickly, adding middle-class jobs and sprouting signs of affluence: Starbucks coffee shops, glassy office towers, gated communities. But others continue to lose people as they struggle to hold on to minimum-wage jobs and battle widespread poverty.

Overall, it is the poorest state in the nation, cheek by jowl with one of the richest. The median household income is $31,500 in West Virginia, $57,500 in Maryland.

Coal industry jobs pay about $50,000 here. That is why the steady losses over the past generation were so devastating. And why the recent turnaround - 4,000 mining jobs added in the past two years - is being met with cheers as the ripple it creates helps lift other businesses as well as the public coffers.

The Sago Mine explosion that killed 12 here in January - followed by more deadly mine accidents in and outside the state - is a potent reminder of the danger. And the increasing mountaintop removal in search of coal is alarming environmentalists. But the money's hard to beat.

"We've had miners called back to work recently that were laid off 15 years," said Rich Eddy, a United Mine Workers of America vice president. "I started in the mines in 1973, and this, right now, is probably the best I've seen."

That's the story in McDowell County, known for the 1999 film October Sky, a true tale about a miner's son whose passion for rocketry was his ticket out. Alpha Natural Resources just opened a 120-employee mine in the tiny town of Cucumber - the largest new operation in the county that anyone can remember in three decades.

"This," said sales manager Rick Taylor, "is what I call the resurgence of coal."

It's flowing off the conveyor belt before him almost continually, falling into big, dark piles that trucks have lined up to move. Just down the road, 50 full railroad cars sit on the tracks, ready to go.

Mine superintendent Teddy Sharp, 54, who sees 15 years of life in the complex, said: "I think most of the people working at this mine can retire here."

Todd Richardson, 30, a mine clerk, joined Alpha Natural Resources last year because he saw long-term stability - and because the pay and benefits beat his previous job as a hydraulic company salesman. He and his wife are building a house now, putting down permanent roots in the town in which he grew up.

"A time or two, we thought we might move," he said. "But then this job opportunity came."

If any place offers a lesson in the dangers of relying solely on the coal economy, however, McDowell is it. The county is still feeling the effects of past losses.

Even with the upturn, joblessness in the county is officially 7.3 percent. It's really far higher; many residents have given up looking. Half the households make less than $19,000 a year. Beside the dizzyingly winding roads are hollowed-out homes clinging to hills, clothes drying on lines, signs that beg "for sale" or "for lease."

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