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Coalfield Development Corp. bringing hope to Southern WV

SAM OWENS | Charleston Gazette-Mail
Danny Ferguson (front left), Lincoln County Crew Chief, talks with crew member Colt Brogan (front right) as Jeremy Smith (back left) and Ashley Booton (back right) joke around during a lunch break outside of West Edge Factory near Huntington. Ferguson, who is a Lincoln County native, said he serves as a boss and a mentor for the Coalfield Development Corp. crew.

WAYNE — By the time Colt Brogan reached his senior year at Lincoln County High School, his hopes of attending college and planning for a career had all but disappeared.

It wasn't that Brogan didn't have the ambition or the grades – he was set to graduate with honors. But part way through his senior year, he moved out of his home along the Coal River to escape what he thought was an unhealthy environment.

He still wanted to plot a way forward — to find a career, to afford an education, to build a life. But he said he felt trapped by where he grew up, who his parents were, what high school he attended, and what he could afford.

The price tag of higher education had convinced him not to go to college straight out of high school, and the chances of landing a job after graduation, he said, weren't great.

Many of his classmates from Lincoln County confronted the same reality. Some considered nursing school. Others looked into construction jobs or work with a utility company. A few found jobs in Hamlin at the Burger King or 7-Eleven. Gone was any expectation of a job in a coal mine or manufacturing plant, like many of their fathers and grandfathers had.

For Brogan, joining the military started to look like his only way out.

“There weren't really any other healthy choices for me at the time, because I didn't take a lot of preparation for college because I never thought my family could afford it or that it was possible for me,” he said.

“You know, nobody was gonna help me get there. Nobody was really pushing me towards that. It was up in the air what I was going to do after school because nobody really cared.”

Then a teacher told him about a new company that had been growing in recent years and was looking to expand into Lincoln County. It offered not only a starting wage of $10 an hour, but the chance to attend community college for free.

Brogan applied, interviewed and was hired by the Coalfield Development Corp.

Now a year later, he's attending Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College. He's learned how to deconstruct abandoned buildings, how to build new homes, and how to create high-tunnel greenhouses. Soon, he'll be trying to build an agricultural business on an abandoned surface mine.

The work at Coalfield Development has provided him with job experience. He may soon have a degree to add to his resume. All of it, he hopes, will give him a fresh start to life.

More than two dozen people, including Brogan, have been directly affected by Coalfield Development, an organization that's something between a real estate developer and a workforce training program.

The group wants to provide occupational training, life skills and higher education to young people in Southern West Virginia. At the same time, it uses those aspiring 20-somethings to revitalize communities by tearing down or rebuilding abandoned structures, and turning what many would consider worthless into something of value.

“What Coalfield Development is all about is taking something that is viewed as a liability, seeing the opportunity in that and converting that liability into an asset,” said Brandon Dennison, the group's founder and executive director. “We do that with places and we do that with people.”

Dennison refers to Coalfield as a social enterprise, with the efficiency of business and the passion of the charitable sector. He likes to think of the organization as the West Virginia Promise Scholarship for young people in the coalfields who didn't find themselves in the best situation.

Many of the young crew members hired by Coalfield didn't come from the steadiest homes. Several of them have cycled through the foster system or were raised by members of their extended families. Some have come from households struggling with drug addiction.

Almost all of them, at one point, have been told that they wouldn't amount to anything.

“They have whispers in their ears saying, 'You are such a liability to this family. You are such a liability to this town. You are such a liability to this county. You're a problem. You're a problem,'” Dennison said.

Those ideas are dismissed the first day they show up for work. The first rule of Coalfield: No whining.

Dennison, then a volunteer with the Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church, was helping to fix a home in Williamson when he saw them.

Two young men came walking toward him. It was hot that day, and both of them had their shirts off. They had toolbelts slung over their shoulders. Each was smoking a cigarette.

They saw the volunteers fixing up the home and wanted to know if there was work available. When Dennison explained that he couldn't pay them, the men walked off, taking their hope of making some money with them.

“It just seemed like this minor moment at the time, but for whatever reason, that image really stuck with me,” Dennison said. “It really bothered me. It really angered me, because I felt like it was very symbolic of the situation in the coalfields of West Virginia.

“You have young people who are eager. They want to work. They want to learn. They've got some gumption, but because of where they live, they don't really have a chance to apply that.”

Since then, Dennison has devoted much of his life to trying to fix the inequity he witnessed that day.

The graduate of Shepherd University and the University of Indiana isn't new to community development work. He spent time in Botswana and Nepal and volunteered at inner-city food banks and American Indian reservations.

“I always felt like those experiences helped grow a sense of commitment to justice, but I always felt like those places weren't where I belonged,” said Dennison, who grew up in Cabell County. “I was born and raised in West Virginia, and right in my back yard, there was just as much pain and hurt.”

In 2011, Dennison began to organize Coalfield Development. He moved back in with his parents and began assessing the needs of the surrounding communities.

The Wayne County Commission soon gave him a desk in the corner of their office –- “I was kind of like a squatter,” he said — where he hammered out some of his first grant applications.

As Dennison pitched his idea to anyone in the community who would listen, he got mixed reactions.

One man laughed in his face and told him that he wouldn't be able to find any young people who wanted to work. All they want to do is sit around and collect a check, the man said.

Dennison ignored that, believing the man's reaction was just a product of the cynicism that has built up in the coalfields.

When he accepted applications for his first round of crew members in the summer of 2012, he had an overflow of applications for the three positions he was able to afford that year.

“They wanted to work. They were smart. But they just needed some support,” Dennison said. “They needed a real opportunity, not just a minimum-wage fast food job, a real opportunity with education, life skills and the emotional support it takes to really reverse these generational poverty cycles.”

Those recruits were the first to go through what Dennison refers to as the 33, six and three model that provides crew members with 33 hours of work experience, six hours of schooling and three hours of life-skills training each week.

That three-man crew quickly got to work tearing down abandoned homes, remodeling structures in Wayne County, attending college courses, and learning how to manage personal finances, their health and the emotional stresses of life.

Five years later, Dennison said, his system works. One of the first crew members who hired on, a young father who had a second child on the way, is now a homeowner and is employed full-time with a cabinet maker in Huntington.

Then again, it's not for everyone. Some recruits drop out during the first few weeks. But Dennison said 100 percent of the people who make it past that probationary period have gone on to graduate from Coalfield, and all 10 of those crew members have found a full-time job afterward.

What started out as narrow plan to build affordable housing in Wayne County has grown into a multi-pronged operation that now has 20 crew members across three counties.

They work in construction, woodworking and agriculture, and all of them receive certifications for things like solar installation, federal workplace safety, energy efficient construction, blueprint reading and hazardous material cleanup.

Coalfield's staff has also grown. It now has numerous administrators, including seven crew chiefs with diverse backgrounds in art, machining, mechanics, construction, social work and sustainable agriculture.

Dennison said he never intended for Coalfield to grow this quickly. He was warned about straying too far and allowing Coalfield to be spread too thin. But in reality, he said it wasn't something that could be avoided. He quickly realized how many basic things his young crew members needed and how many structural problems there were in southern West Virginia.

“We have grown and expanded a lot, and we didn't set out to do that. But we just felt a responsibility,” he said. “Communities are inviting us in. They are looking around and saying 'We need something. We need a positive vision to be a part of.'”

Dennison said it is now time to fine-tune that work, and make his organization self-sustaining.

Coalfield has received more than $2.5 million in grant funding from groups such as the Appalachian Regional Commission, the U.S. Economic Development Authority, the Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.

Last year, about 45 percent of their budget came from the group's internal profits, something Dennison wants to raise to 100 percent.

As one staff member put it: We have conquered. Now it is time to govern.

In 2014, Jason Warrix wouldn't have dreamed of having a full-time job, let alone one that paid $12 an hour with benefits.

Prior to joining Coalfield Development, the Wayne County resident was working a part-time job for $9 an hour under the table. The work schedule varied and he often found himself unemployed.

Now, after spending more than two years with Coalfield Development and graduating from Mountwest Community College, Warrix has a job with Service Pump and Supply in Huntington, where he works on diesel engines and other equipment — an accomplishment he says wouldn't have happened without Coalfield's leaders.

“Brandon has helped me out in more ways than most of my family has,” he said. “The two people who have ever been there for me are my grandfather and Brandon.”

After he got his job, Warrix's grandmother died, and he had to move back to Dunlow in southern Wayne County to help his grandfather, the man who raised him. He now drives more than an hour to his job in Huntington, where he had been living.

It's just one example of the struggles that some of the Coalfield crew members face even after making their way through the program.

The road to success, Dennison said, is rarely a direct line. Coalfield tries to give crew members the financial, educational and emotional tools needed to overcome those hurdles.

Even crew members that are still working at Coalfield confront obstacles that people from more advantaged backgrounds never consider.

Some crew members don't have enough money for a car. Colt Brogan wasn't able to afford a computer, or the Internet connection that he needs for college, until he moved into a new apartment with Dakota Flowers and Jacob “Jimbo” Dyer, two of the other members of the Lincoln County crew.

Together, the three of them are able to afford the $400 monthly rent and utilities. The apartment in Hamlin isn't much, but each man contributed some furniture, and they have a refrigerator full of food each week.

Danny Ferguson, the Lincoln County crew chief, often picks the three up early in the morning and drops them back off at their apartment at the end of the workday.

At the job site, Ferguson, a former machinist, is their boss. But he also acts as a mentor, dispensing advice and listening to some of their personal problems, in between the joking and ribbing.

“I talk to them a little bit, because I've made mistakes in my life and I have done things I shouldn't have,” Ferguson said, adding that he has seen his crew members grow personally over the past year.

They've been figuring life out as they go. The three housemates take turns cooking dinner and cleaning the apartment after they get home from whatever work site they were on that day.

For the first time, they've started to think about their long-term plans.

Brogan is considering operating his own farm or going to law school after Coalfield. Flowers, who often uses a punching bag hung on their weathered front porch, said he might want to open up his own boxing gym some day.

Ferguson said he doesn't know what they'll do, but he believes they'll be successful.

“I won't set a limitation for them, because I think they are limitless,” he said. “They will achieve more in life than what people expected out of them. I guarantee you that.”

Located on the Mingo-Logan county line, the Coal-Mac surface mine is like a microcosm of West Virginia's current economy. Huge excavators and dump trucks owned by Arch Coal continue to push the mountain aside to reach the coal underneath.

Meanwhile, hardwood flooring and concrete are being produced by workers at the Wrighway Ready Mix and Unilin Flooring plants, located next door at an industrial park built on a reclaimed portion of the mine.

Among all of this, the Coalfield Development leaders plan to raise livestock, grow crops, plant orchards, manage beehives and construct greenhouses that will expand the company's agricultural production, which they hope to sell to local hospitals and other businesses.

“As you can tell, it's a very post-industrial scene up here,” said Ben Gilmer, the president of Refresh Appalachia, Coalfield's agriculture segment, as he looked out over the mine during a foggy morning in December. A local farmer's cows already roam the flattened mountaintop.

Local and state officials, including Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, have pushed to redevelop surface mines in recent years in the hope of attracting manufacturers and other large businesses to southern West Virginia.

But Coalfield's work at two abandoned mines in Mingo County are testing other ways that these isolated locations, often miles away from a highway or industrial utility connection, might be used.

Coalfield's Mingo County crew is already constructing specially built timber-frame houses at another reclaimed mine site next to the King Coal Highway.

Coalfield has also completed or is attempting other ambitious projects across the region. By using or resurrecting long-ignored structures in communities, the company is leveraging those abandoned properties to train their latest round of crew members.

Urling's General Store in downtown Wayne, where Model-T Fords were sold in the early 1900s, has been transformed into five affordable housing units and a coffee shop that will be operated by some of the building's residents.

The Lincoln County crew recently deconstructed the well-known Bus Stop Restaurant in Hamlin. The building couldn't be saved, but wood salvaged from the historic structure has already been repurposed into one-of-a-kind pieces of furniture, including rough-hewn counter tops.

And at the old Corbin factory in the west end of Huntington, Coalfield is spending around $2 million to renovate the abandoned garment factory into offices, a community event space, a food hub, a wood shop, classrooms and studios for local artists.

All of that work is an example of Coalfield's focus on turning perceived problems in communities into new assets for the Mountain State.

“The only difference between a stepping stone and a stumbling block is how you look at it,” said Deacon Stone, the director of the West Edge project at Huntington's old Corbin factory. 
Coalfield's staff doesn't believe they can solve all of the state's social and economic problems on their own. But they do believe they can help increase business in disadvantaged communities by meeting local needs — things that can't be outsourced to another state or country.

“We think there is change to be made on the small scale, and it's not just going to be us. We are not going to save the day,” said Gilmer, the agriculture director. “There is no silver bullet, but there could be a lot of silver BBs, though.”

While state officials are focused on attracting the next big manufacturer to West Virginia, Coalfield is trying to tackle the state's economic problems from the ground up .

The group continues to take on some of the most disparaging problems in West Virginia, including drug abuse, educational attainment and the worst workforce participation rate in the country — what Dennison refers to as the ghosts of Appalachia.

“If you don't make the right investments on the front end,” he said, “how are we to expect a return on the back end —- 10, 15, 20 years down the line?”

But the biggest effect the group is having can't be captured by an economic indicator or social statistic. There is no way to measure the direct impact they are having on their crew members lives.

“The way Coalfield is, they just don't let things go,” Brogan said. “You know, they want to know where you stand so they can help you in any way they can. That's really something. They actually care.”

“It's not just the program,” he said. “It's the people. Honestly, it's the people in it that make it what it is.”

Reach Andrew Brown at, 304-348-4814 or follow @Andy_Ed_Brown on Twitter.

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