I was disappointed to learn that the first round of POWER grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission did not make it to the most highly affected area of West Virginia: the southwest coalfields.
I don’t want to take anything away from Pocahontas, Lewis, Braxton and Randolph counties. I am sure there are several reasons why they were selected and Southern West Virginia was not.
In fact, as far as I know, the Southern West Virginia counties did not apply for the grants.
These are the counties that, for years, gave so much of their health and well-being, generating billions of dollars in severance taxes that the rest of the state benefited from.
Boone, Logan, Mingo and McDowell counties have been nearly totally dependent on coal mining for over 100 years. With the significant drop in mining in the southern coalfields, these counties have witnessed their budgets decline by more than 75%.
These counties are struggling to provide even basic services to an ever-dwindling population and to keep the courthouse doors open, much less being able to invest in infrastructure to help grow and diversify their economy.
Where is the help for these communities now that coal is no longer generating the taxes to sustain them?
Most people don’t realize just how much money these coalfield counties collected in severance taxes over the years, funding projects throughout the state. Even though the counties collected the taxes, they could only keep 7%, and sent 93% to the state general revenue fund.
From just three counties, the state budget received over $170 million annually. In my home county, Boone County, the state received $80 million to $90 million per year and, since the 1970s, Boone has contributed over $1.3 billion to the state’s general revenue fund.
Sadly, we have little to show for it in our region. This once proud area has fallen on its face. I truly believe that the federal government wants to help this region.
Isn’t it time we repay them with just a fraction of what they collected?
Until 2017, the Corridor G Regional Economic Development Authority existed. The group worked hard over 20 years to develop a plan to grow and diversify the region, as it knew, at some point, coal would not be the economic driver it once was. The concept was to use coal as a bridge to a more vibrant, diversified economy.
The economic development authority developed a regional plan that is still relevant. The strategy involved using our coal severance tax, aimed at the future, not the day-to-day operations of county government.
It focused on infrastructure along our major highways, such as US 119 (Corridor G) and called on finishing the coalfield expressway and update Route 10.
It called for the development of flat land in the southern coalfields, the lack of which, at one time, was the biggest hindrance to growth and diversification.
We know that nearly everything big in West Virginia is located on post-mined land: the FBI center, Mylan Park and the Logan Convention Center are just a few examples.
The Rock Creek or Hobet mine site is finally getting some basic infrastructure, and I believe strongly that it can have a major impact on the future of the Kanawha Valley and Southern West Virginia. But it’s just one of many sites that has potential.
The strategy called on us to develop land-use master plans calling for the highest, best use of the land, and to running roads and infrastructure, including broadband, to these sites.
Unfortunately, the funding for the Corridor G Regional Economic Development Authority was zeroed out of the state budget about five years ago, ending the regional authority. But, the plan it developed remains and has relevance even to this day.
When I talk to some county commissioners, they tell me they aren’t aware of grant opportunities like the ones provided by the ARC, much less the looming deadlines. These counties are just trying to provide the basic services, and when I walk the streets of Madison, I don’t run into many grant writers.
We need technical assistance brought down to the very basic level of government. There is so much potential in this region, and all we ever needed was some funding for infrastructure.
Unfortunately, the area that needs help the most might not get it.