WELCH — The McDowell County Economic Development Authority has a new leader and an old question: how does a county that was once booming regain its economic footing?
Molina Roberts, the new director as of Aug. 19, doesn’t have the answer, but she wants to figure it out.
“We don’t know where to start. That’s the No. 1 problem,” Roberts said. “We have so many good things here, but projects start, and they never finish. We need to come together. We need someone to help us coordinate coming together. That’s what I hope I can do.”
Before coming to the EDA, the Kimball native worked in banking in McDowell County for more than 10 years. She said she stepped into the position because she was tired of not seeing anything done and of living with unfulfilled promises by those in charge.
“I want my daughter to stay here, and right now there’s nothing that would make her — allow her — to do so,” Roberts said. “Someone had to do something.”
While McDowell County once produced more coal than any other county in West Virginia, it’s now considered the poorest. It ranks at or near the bottom for a number of wellbeing markers: unemployment, average median income, opioid use and overdoses and number of children in foster care or kinship care, to name a few. These markers, while fact, shouldn’t sway how people approach business and development in the county, Roberts said.
“We need to do better to overcome these challenges, and we can’t do that without business, without investments,” Roberts said.
There are challenges, though, that arose before Roberts’ time at the office, even before most of the people living in the county were born, she said.
When McDowell County was rich with coal, the cities and towns were almost entirely owned by coal companies like U.S. Steel. They owned the water systems, the stores, the homes, the land — “even the people,” Roberts said.
“Those companies didn’t want anything aside from coal, that’s where they made their money, and that’s what they needed to keep,” Roberts said. “We were created without the ability for anything else to survive here, and we didn’t notice it soon enough. Now, we’re suffering because of it.”
When coal companies left, privately owned businesses that were in the county followed, taking with them business and occupation taxes that would have allowed the county to invest in improvements and economic development efforts.
Now with only a fraction of coal coming from the county — and in turn a fraction of coal severance taxes — Roberts said residents need to come to grips with moving the county’s economy forward.
“Coal is gone. It’s not coming back here the way it was, and we need to accept that,” Roberts said. “We relied on it for so long, we’ve always been one-track minded, but if we want to survive we can’t anymore. We have to be open to change and new ideas.”
That change, for Roberts, means honoring the heritage that coal gave to the county. For years, McDowell has tried to capitalize on tourism efforts through the Hatfield-McCoy trails (a new trailhead opened in the county this summer) and marketing its lakes and waterways.
Roberts wants to see those tourism efforts utilize the history that is rich in McDowell. One of the first projects on her docket is the long awaited renovation of the Houston Coal Company Store, near Big Four. It was designated as a historic landmark years ago, and while plans to turn it into a museum were announced in 2015, when the county received more than $1 million from the Federal Highways Administration’s Transportation Enhancement grant, work is just getting started.
Roberts said projects like this one — that pay homage to coal mining and its culture — should be used more in the county, but need to be accompanied by other types of development.
“We’re a region of history, we have so much and we need to tap into that, but we have to give other options, too,” Roberts said. “If we can get people here, they’ll experience the history. First, though, they need to come.”
For Southern West Virginia, the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System has been lauded for its success in bringing people out of state to the coalfields. In McDowell and Wyoming Counties, though, a problem persists: no direct access to the areas.
In an interview earlier this year, Jeff Lusk, director of the Hatfield-McCoy Regional Recreation Authority, said that counties like Boone, Logan and Mingo see more people staying longer in their towns during trail season, but because of the lack of access to Wyoming and McDowell — there are no easy ways in from four-lane highways or main roads — visitors tend to just ride the trails there, maybe eat lunch, and ride back somewhere else.
“The trails are great in the areas — well kept and have plenty of local support,” Lusk said. “There just doesn’t seem to be enough to make people want to stay past a short visit.”
Roberts hopes that during her tenure at the EDA, she can see more lodging added for trail riders. Already, the county is constructing cabins at Berwin Lake: six owned by the EDA that will be at the lake, and six owned by the county commission, that may be relocated somewhere else.
She also expressed interest in opening a hotel, maybe with a pool or entertainment center, in the county to attract trail riders but also their families, who may have other interests.
One of the biggest hurdles for all of this, though, is a lack of modern infrastructure in the area. Public water connections, while growing, are still absent in large swaths of the county. In addition, less than half the county is connected to public sewage, and several communities rely on “straight pipes” that pump raw sewage from homes, down a pipe directly into creeks.
Per the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, this limits the ability of “water tourism” in places like McDowell.
Companies, Roberts said, are not going to locate businesses in places where they cannot get easily accessible water or sewage services. Or, perhaps more importantly, a solid broadband connection.
“We need to tackle these things, I know, and I know we all want to,” Roberts said. “They are big problems that are going to take a lot of people from different backgrounds coming together. For now, I’m looking at what we can get done, and we will get there. Sometimes smaller stuff comes first, though.”
Roberts has only been on the job about three weeks, and has been dedicating most of that time to learning her responsibilities and listening to residents about what they think the county needs.
She said that it’s important for people, if they have concerns or ideas, to come forward and share them. McDowell is large, filled with individuals who have different backgrounds and expertise. If everyone could come together instead of facing their struggles alone, there might be more progress, Roberts said.
“You can’t buy pants in this county. We all know something has to change, and we all want it to, but none of us can do it alone. We need to bring people in here offer them something,” Roberts said. “It’s not going to happen overnight, or next week, or next month, but if we all want it to and are willing to work, it will happen. Let’s do it together.”