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LOGAN — Once in a lifetime.

That’s the kind of opportunity West Virginia coal communities like Logan have before them, state lawmakers stressed before a public community-listening session Monday evening about how to best use eagerly expected federal investments.

The listening session was the first of four planned by the House of Delegates Coal Communities Workgroup, created in the spring to help communities reeling from coal plant and mine closures.

“The reason we’re here is the federal government is about to make a tremendous amount of money available to the coalfields,” Delegate Ed Evans, D-McDowell, told the crowd to open the meeting. “From Morgantown to Welch, we’re going to see millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars flow into this area. And we have to have a plan for it. We have to have infrastructure in place so that this money gets spent the way we need it spent.”

Welch and other legislators are looking forward to an influx of anticipated funding from a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill the Senate passed in August and a social spending budget plan Democrats are pressing to strike a deal on that is expected to contain about $2 trillion more for a 10-year period.

Monday evening’s listening session attracted a crowd of more than six dozen in the Word of Life Church gymnasium. Lawmakers separated attendees into three groups gathered at tables sounding off on economic development priorities and how to best help displaced workers.

The next stop on the listening-session tour will be the Woodrow Wilson High School cafeteria, at 6 p.m. Wednesday. Evans said planned stops in Moundsville and Pursglove, which were postponed because of the special legislative session, would be held in mid-November.

Some members of the public touted commercial driver’s license programs for workers laid off from coal mines and plants. Some called for a greater emphasis on trade schools, instead of the traditional four-year college track. Others urged prioritizing cleanup of abandoned mine land to create job opportunities and environmental benefits.

Many identified family, a sense of purpose and making a living wage as reasons for working — and job loss as the culprit behind much of the region’s struggles with substance abuse.

Glen “Houn’ Dog” Adkins, 73, of Peach Creek, a retired rail yard clerk, argued that the area has a high concentration of residents with coal mining experience who would excel in similar jobs in that industry, along with wood manufacturing, welding and other hands-on trades.

In his second term as Logan County assessor — an elected position that requires determining property taxes — Adkins knows better than most the impact of plummeting coal industry revenue on the county’s tax base.

Logan County Commission President Danny Godby said earlier this year the county’s quarterly coal severance tax revenue had fallen from $900,000 in 2017 and 2018 to $250,000-300,000, prompting the county to pull support from community service organizations, such as youth sports teams and the Kiwanis and Lions clubs.

“We’ve suffered,” Evans said. “You know good and well that we have suffered monetarily, we’ve suffered from businesses [leaving], we’ve suffered from loss of population. I can just go on and on and on. This money can make a real difference.”

The Coal Communities Workgroup was inspired by a bill amendment Evans introduced late in the 2021 legislative session to direct the state Public Service Commission to facilitate creating a plan to revitalize communities affected by coal-fired power plant closures. The plan would have aimed to create opportunities to increase jobs in coal and other industries.

The Senate rejected Evans’ amendment, which itself was inspired by a bill introduced by Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, that also would have created a coal community comeback plan. The plan would have been crafted by an advisory committee composed of lawmakers and economic development agency leaders, utility and union officials and representatives of workers laid off from coal-related jobs.

Hansen and other state and county officials were on hand for Monday evening’s session, listening and taking notes on what attendees had to say that Evans said would be reviewed and then released publicly.

Attendees were given copies of an April report from a federal work group that identified Southern West Virginia as the area of the country most in need of focused U.S. investment because of its high dependence on coal jobs.

The report from the Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization, created by President Joe Biden via executive order, highlighted the 25 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics areas of the country most affected by coal-related declines.

Five of them were in West Virginia: Southern West Virginia nonmetropolitan (No. 1); Wheeling (No. 3); Northern West Virginia nonmetropolitan (No. 11); Beckley (No. 23); and Charleston (No. 24).

The group recommended prioritizing these areas in the near term for investment using existing federal agency programs and funding from the fiscal year 2021 budget and federal COVID-19 stimulus package that Biden signed into law last month.

Existing federal programs, with potentially available funding totaling nearly $38 billion, could be used to provide immediate investment in those areas, the report notes. That could include grant funding for infrastructure projects, low-carbon technology innovation resources and financing programs for abandoned mine land and orphaned oil and gas well remediation in that total.

One new potential source of federal funding that Logan County and other coal communities nearby are pursuing is the Economic Development Administration’s Build Back Better Regional Challenge, a competition for $1 billion in grants to help boost local economies.

The Economic Development Administration will allocate at least $100 million of the Build Back Better Regional Challenge funding to support coal communities.

The Build Back Better Regional Challenge is a two-phased competition. In phase one, interested regions form coalitions of eligible entities and collaborate to develop a concept proposal that details a vision for developing or expanding a new or existing regional industry and three to eight potential projects that support that vision.

In phase two, the Economic Development Administration will award 20 to 30 regional coalitions $25 million to $75 million to implement those projects. Eligible phase two implementation grant costs include water and sewer system improvements, industrial parks, business incubators and accelerators, multi-tenant manufacturing facilities and broadband.

Logan County Administrator Rocky Adkins said the Logan County Commission joined the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority and the Huntington Area Development Council to submit a phase one application seeking funding that he says would spur investments from four companies willing to operate in the area.

The companies would focus on advanced carbon products, waste-to-energy waste management, renewable power generation and biochemicals, respectively, according to Adkins.

“We [would] build the buildings and the infrastructure for them to be able to locate [here],” Adkins said.

But the Build Back Better Regional Challenge is just the beginning of planned federal investments in coal country. It’s a good, new problem for state lawmakers that they hope will go a long way toward mitigating the old, bad ones that attendees highlighted Monday night.

“What we’re trying to do here tonight is get everybody’s input together,” said Delegate Jordan Bridges, R-Logan, a member of the state delegates’ work group. “That way, when we all go back to Charleston, we can create meaningful legislation that can actually impact the coalfields. This money will allow us to create legislation and bring different industries in play.”

Mike Tony covers energy and the environment. He can be reached at 304-348-1236 or mtony@hdmediallc

.com. Follow @Mike__Tony on Twitter.

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