WELCH, W.Va. -- For more than a generation after World War II, local stores, cars and people packed the streets in downtown Welch, just above the Tug River's banks.Today, the main streets in Welch are bleak, lined with vacant restaurants and stores.A few downtown businesses are still open, including the Douglas Mortuary, BWS Barber Shop and a lawyer's office.McDowell County, once the largest coal-producing county in the United States, has produced more coal than any other county in West Virginia's history over the years. But last year, it ranked 10th among West Virginia's 30 coal-producing counties.Nearby coal towns -- like Keystone, Northfork, Elkhorn and Maybeury -- suffer from the same problems as Welch."The first economic drop came about 1958, with mine mechanization. Many people left to work in car factories in Ohio and Michigan," said Dennis C. Altizer, McDowell County's assessor since 1991.Continuous mining machines sparked the first wave of mechanization in Appalachia's coal mines, cutting jobs from the old pick-and-shovel days.During the next generation, underground longwall mining and the rise of strip mining -- in Central Appalachia and western states like Wyoming -- increased productivity, further cutting the number of working miners."There were 100,000 people in McDowell County in 1950. Today, there are about 22,000 residents," Altizer said.From 2000 to 2010, McDowell County's population dropped by nearly 20 percent, from 27,329 people to 22,064 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau."It is so sad we are losing so much population. Half of our homes are on homestead exemption, which lowers property taxes for people who are over 65 or disabled," Altizer said during a recent interview in the McDowell County Courthouse.Today, Altizer said, most income to county residents come from coal and natural gas jobs, or from checks retired people receive -- Social Security, black lung, the Veterans Administration and United Mine Workers."The monthly West Virginia Economic Survey prepared by Workforce West Virginia recently reported there were about 6,000 people working in the county, many of them with government jobs or fast-food jobs. We have an older population today. And there are not new jobs here," Altizer said."Coal and gas are keeping us going. Today, we are the third largest producer of gas in the state. Geomet has 150 gas wells," Altizer said. "Gas severance taxes, used for economic development, brought us $1.3 million a few months ago." "Most homes were built in the 1920s and 1930s. No new housing were getting built. But the Council of Southern Mountains built some homes recently," added Altizer, a former schoolteacher, UMW field representative and area coordinator for U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller.Three prison facilities provide nearly 500 other jobs.The recently opened Federal Correctional Institution, four miles north of Welch, houses 1,280 federal prisoners and employs more than 320. The Welch Facility (the old McDowell County Jail) and Stevens Correctional Center house 430 prisoners and employ 150 people.Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., said, "The figures are alarming, the statistics downright disheartening, but they don't show the whole picture, and certainly not what's in the hearts and minds of so many families and individuals in the county."The core consensus I witness with every visit and phone call is that far from throwing in the towel, people are working to reconnect and rebuild. They want to stay and have family who would come home."Rahall believes "Appalachia and rural America share many of the same challenges, but also the same values and the subsequent opportunities those values generate that are now manifesting themselves in McDowell County."It's incumbent on all levels of government and the private sector to do their part in helping chart the county's future. But we all need to take a lesson or two from McDowell's experience, learn from it and apply it to other regions more proactively, before the alarm bells ring out. We ought to do it for families, small business and for the good of the nation. After all, our nation is only as strong as its weakest link."The McDowell County school system also has its problems."The state took over our county school system 11 years ago. We are on our fourth superintendent since then. There is no easy fix." Altizer said. "We have been economically depressed for so long."And Wyoming and McDowell counties are the only coal counties left that have no four-lane roads," Altizer added.McDowell County has a 9.4 percent unemployment rate and total employment of 7,210, according to last month's West Virginia Economic Survey.In November, McDowell County's per capita income was $25,614, compared to $32,042 for the state of West Virginia and $39,937 for the United States.Between November 2011 and November 2012, coal production dropped further -- from 11.7 million tons to 10.5 million tons.Raamie Barker, senior adviser to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, said McDowell County was where the "slide away from coal began, the first place that it began. Similar conditions spread to other areas."When old downtown sections in places like Welch see a decline of the population, retail businesses suffer as a result of people moving away to get jobs in other coal mining areas or other areas of the country. ... They also began to run out of marketable coal. I don't know if that is the only factor."Barker remembers when the State Department asked him to host Tony Blair, who would soon be Great Britain's prime minister, on a trip to McDowell County. Blair grew up in Durham, an industrial and mining town in northern England, which he later represented in the House of Commons.Barker brought Blair to Davy, a mining town just northwest of Welch, in 1986."There must have been a dozen coal tipples. Back then, houses were already boarded up, businesses were boarded up. I remember seeing four or five young men just loafing around, sort of a sad commentary. They don't have anything to do. Just standing around as part of the blight."It had a profound effect on Tony Blair," Barker said. "It was a reminder how we really have to do everything we can to prepare for the eventual changes in the coalfields because of the markets and production."We also have to do everything we can to make coal strong as a viable industry, and keep it strong as long as we can. It is hard in that geography to attract other types of factories and industries that other places in the country can attract very easily because their geography is flat. It is a reminder you have to work hard," Barker said.The latest state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training statistics rank McDowell County eighth in mining employment (with 1,206 miners) and tenth in coal production (4.3 million tons). Boone County was first in both categories, with 3,894 miners producing 20.9 million tons.McDowell County's four largest producers are XMV Inc., Bluestone Coal Group, Extra Energy Inc. and Brook Run Mining Co.In 2009, Jim Justice, who owns The Greenbrier resort, sold Bluestone Coal to Mechel OAO, a Moscow-based company that operates mines, metal refineries and power plants in Russia, Romania, Lithuania, Bulgaria and Kazakhstan.Webster, Boone, Logan and Nicholas counties have the most unmined coal reserves left, ranging from 3.4 billion to 3.6 million tons each. McDowell County has 1.6 billion tons of reserves, according to the West Virginia Coal Association.Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said, "McDowell County is a special place in West Virginia with such a proud history of tough hard work and perseverance. It's those very things that will build up McDowell County again."Rockefeller said he has worked to help connect all McDowell County's schools to the internet to give students "educational experiences that open them up to a world of opportunity.He said he believes local residents, state and federal officials and organizations like Reconnecting McDowell can help "bring new opportunities for jobs, a highly trained workforce and an education that looks to the future."Barker said, "Welch was a bustling place. But when you are tied to one industry like that, this going to be the result. It should remind us not to let that happen again. We must try to do something to turn it around."Reach Paul J. Nyden at email@example.com or 304-348-5164.