Millennials in a post-coal world

 By RP Siegel

It’s become abundantly clear, that coal is on the way out. What will that mean to places like West Virginia, that have been dependent on it as a way of life for so long? This story focuses on a growing effort to remake the Mountain State economy in a clean energy world. The state has started investing in developing tourism. There is a tremendous amount of scenic beauty there, and it is already a top destination for whitewater rafting. There is a strong culture of music, arts and crafts and small farms that can tap into the growing agritourism trend. Much work will be needed, to make this transformation, which is important because economic fears have fueled resistance to climate action in this region. At the same time, there is a pivot towards clean energy with projects that are doing things like using chicken waste for biodiesel, and utilizing ridge tops for wind power, often empowered by members of the millennial generation…

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We live in an age that is perhaps best defined by progress. Progress, for the most part, improves the lives of men and women. But progress means change, and sometimes that change moves away from things that some people have come to depend on.

This is certainly the case in West Virginia, a place whose economy has relied on coal mining going all the way back to 1742. It could be said to form the bedrock of the state, not just economically but literally, with recoverable bituminous seams occurring in 43 of the state’s 55 counties.

According to this 2016 WV Economic Outlook, employment in the state is declining, despite fairly robust job growth at the national level. That is primarily due to declines in coal production which have fallen to the lowest levels since 1977.

While this certainly poses challenges, including pressuring the state budget, all is not gloom and doom in the Mountain State, where resilient entrepreneurs are finding new ways to market the state’s considerable aboveground assets. In fact, the growing realization that West Virginia is a state in need of a new economy, has created an environment of tremendous opportunity, especially among millennials, who could be the most entrepreneurial generation yet. Like the coal mining business itself, which takes place both at the surface in some locations, and underground in others, the same can be said for the revitalization that is sweeping across the state, involving the utilization of some of the state’s under appreciated resources, both natural and human.

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Nearer the surface are the efforts to expand tourism. Take, for example, the New River Gorge, sometimes referred to as “the Grand Canyon of the East.” This beautiful stretch of river has become a magnet for adventure tourism. The 1,500 acre ACE Adventure Resort in Fayette County, features world-class whitewater rafting along with guided adventures, and overnight accommodations. According to Heidi Prior, marketing director for ACE, which currently employs 530 people, the resort saw a 9% increase in business last year.

Tourism is improving, according to Cindy Martel, marketing specialist for the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, whose specialty is agritourism. “When tourists come in for rafting,” asks Martel, “how can we leverage that?” WV has the highest percentage of family farms in the US. If these small farmers can earn extra income by enticing travelers to stop and pick blueberries, or buy maple syrup from a roadside stand, so much the better. Martel gives workshops to farmers to help them explore these opportunities.“Can we organize school farm tours, have open houses, or put up some passive solar high tunnel greenhouses to grow bedding plants?” Then there are the music festivals, the craft fairs and centers, and the burgeoning farm to table movement, including numerous restaurants coming on the scene featuring locally grown, sustainable food. Martel says going digital is essential. “Tourists are driving down the road, looking at their smartphones to decide where to go next. If you’re not online, they won’t find you.”

But tourism is only one piece of the puzzle. The less visible, one might say the deeper piece, is happening at the community level, off the beaten track, driven almost entirely by members of the millennial generation. In a way, it’s a kind of perfect storm. Natalie Roper is the 25 year-old executive director of Generation West Virginia, an organization with the mission to reverse the exodus of young talent leaving the state. Roper is one of a small army of young people who are passionate about the opportunity that West Virginia offers folks like her. Says Roper, “The thing about this millennial generation is that over half of them want to be entrepreneurs and over half of them are impact-driven when it comes to what they want to do. And the thing about West Virginia is that it’s big enough to have the problems that other states have, but it’s also small enough that you can really do something about solving them if you choose to.”

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Add to that, the growing sense that something needs to come along and make up for what is being lost in the coalfields. Furthermore, says Roper, referring to the many young people she works with, “We really feel like it’s up to us, to make this a place where we can stay.” Besides empowering young people with programs like Lead the Change, Roper and her team also educate lawmakers on the need to develop and maintain a “young talent infrastructure.”

Alissa Novoselick, at 30, is responsible, for developing another of West Virginia’s resources, its rich artistic heritage. As executive director of the Tamarack Artisan Foundation, Novoselick has taken on the task of establishing and developing markets for West Virginia artists outside of the state and to help them participate in the state’s “creative economy.” Says Novoselick, “West Virginia is the best place for artists to live and work. It is affordable, there is great natural beauty and it is close to major markets.”

Anne Barth has been doing the same thing for small manufacturers at TechConnect West Virginia. They have assisted Might Tykes™, which makes fitness gear for toddlers, and everything else from pickle makers to developers of electronic components for jumbo jets.

Ben Gilmer is president of Refresh Appalachia, an agricultural economic development program. Gilmer says that WV produces just over 1% of the $400 million they spend every year on fruits and vegetables. Gilmer’s social enterprise looks for ways to address this problem while providing jobs for the unemployed, including mine workers. They turn liabilities into assets, like using an abandoned factory in Huntington for indoor food production or utilizing reclaimed surface mines for agriculture, despite the poor soil. They use livestock to build the soil, raise honeybees, or plant crops in raised beds. Since many of these workers are inexperienced, they have developed a two-year employee development model which includes 33 hours on the job, 6 hours of classroom time, and 3 hours learning life skills.

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Finally, Stephanie Tyree, another millennial, is deputy director of the West Virginia Community Development Hub. The hub essentially helps communities around the state to identify and economically leverage their strengths, while building leaders in the process. “The emphasis is on building sustainable strength in the community so that they can keep going, after whatever project we are doing is finished.” The key seems to be building social infrastructure. The state already has the example of Wheeling, which survived the withdrawal of the steel industry and is thriving today.

There is clearly a sense of a moment in time or a new frontier here. It’s a convergence of young people, who are connected like never before, and who want to stand up and make a difference, and a beautiful and affordable place that needs them. West Virginia might just be the one place in the US where young people, and millennials in particular, have the biggest impact, and where they can find the satisfaction they seek in co-creating a vibrant new economy.

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about the author
RP Siegel
Skilled writer. Technology, sustainability, engineering, energy, renewables, solar, wind, poverty, water, food. Studied both English Lit.and Engineering at university level. Inventor.