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How to Save Coal Country

Forget Donald Trump's promises to bring back mining jobs. There's a new economic strategy at work in Appalachia.

Mark Lyons/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s greatest skill as a politician lies not in crafting policy, but in telling people what they want to hear. Nowhere, perhaps, has this been clearer than in Appalachia, the vast mountainous region that has long been home to the kind of economic scarcity that famously prompted Lyndon Johnson to declare war on rural poverty in 1964. The region has been battered for decades by factory closures and the declining fortunes of the coal industry, so when Donald Trump promised to make it great again by scrapping environmental regulations and ending the Obama administration’s “war on coal,” its residents listened. “Get ready,” Trump told a crowd of cheering miners in West Virginia last year, “because you’re going to be working your asses off.”

Such promises helped sway working-class Americans to cast their votes for Trump in unprecedented numbers; he won West Virginia by 42 points—his largest margin in any state—and flipped Pennsylvania to the Republican camp for the first time since 1988. But while the surprising outcome of the election may extend the lifespan of the coal industry by a few more years, many in the region are now convinced that the future of Appalachia doesn’t lie in the coal fields, which are facing economic challenges that have nothing to do with the current occupant of the White House, or in the factories, which these days rely more on machines than people. Instead, policy experts and community leaders are fashioning a new economic development strategy for their communities—one that borrows more from liberal theories of urban revitalization than from Trump’s pledges to bring back lost manufacturing and mining jobs. “We realized that if we didn’t address the economic restructuring of these regions, they wouldn’t survive,” says Todd Christensen, executive director of the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation, who served as a deputy director in Virginia’s Department of Housing and Community Development from 2004 to 2009.

In Southwest Virginia, for example, community leaders have been working since 2004 on a plan to rebrand the region as a cultural destination, complete with a booming tourism industry, and a cyber-security hub, offering the kinds of jobs more often associated with Silicon Valley than rural Appalachia. “We do not want to get into the same situation where we have an economy that’s dependent on one dominant industry,” says Shannon Blevins, associate vice chancellor at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, who leads the school’s economic outreach efforts. “We want to make sure we have a diversified economy.”

This new economy is already emerging in parts of Southwest Virginia. During the spring and summer months, there are concerts and music festivals almost every night along the “Crooked Road,” a 330-mile stretch of Southwest Virginia that highlight the region’s musical heritage and generates more than $9 million in tourism revenue every year. The Crooked Road was the brainchild of Christensen and Joe Wilson, a music historian and fan of the region’s music traditions. “In this area, if you go to a family picnic, there’s always music,” Christensen says. “It’s in the water here, it’s real.” In 2011, a new 30,000-square-foot arts center opened in Abingdon, Virginia, showcasing traditional crafts from throughout the region. And last fall, the region received a $3 million grant from the Obama administration to bolster its outdoor tourism industry and expand access to hiking, biking, camping, and water sports. The project is expected to create 200 new jobs and bring in $30 million in revenue over the next five years.

Already, the focus on tourism has had an impact. From 2000 to 2014, tourist spending in the region increased by almost $322 million, according to an analysis by Friends of Southwest Virginia, a local advocacy group. And while overall employment in the region declined by 1.2 percent during that period—driven by steep declines in the farming, mining, and manufacturing industries—employment in the creative industries (arts, entertainment, recreation, food, and hotels) increased by 29 percent.

Tourism alone won’t be enough to save coal country, however. Above all else, rural communities must figure out how to retain residents—particularly young people and families. If young people can’t be persuaded to relocate to or remain in rural towns, these communities will simply die out, a phenomenon currently playing out all across rural America as young people move to urban centers in search of bright lights and better-paying jobs. “Here’s the deal: It really doesn’t matter how much you pour into these places. If you can’t retain young people, it’s over,” says Charles Fluharty, president of the Rural Policy Research Institute at the University of Iowa. “We need to create dynamic, expressive, culturally diverse communities in which they want to raise their kids.”

To achieve that goal, small towns are investing in downtown revitalization projects, creating small business networks, and building out their broadband internet infrastructure. Towns like Floyd and Galax have seen their downtowns energized by new restaurants, art galleries, and shops. In St. Paul, a coalfield town on the Clinch River with easy access to an extensive network of hiking trails, a hotel developer began work last summer on the Western Front Hotel, a 33-room boutique hotel which will also house a music venue, restaurant, and rooftop bar. The town is also raising money to rehabilitate a historic theater, and last fall, longtime St. Paul residents Greg and Jennifer Bailey opened Sugar Hill Brewery, a brewery and restaurant that’s already attracting visitors from both nearby counties and more far-flung locales. “St. Paul embraces new ideas,” Jennifer Bailey says. “We’re not just sitting back and saying ‘Well, we live or die with coal, and we’ll just turn into a ghost town.’ No, we’ll make a way.”

Thanks to these efforts, the number of residents in Southwest Virginia aged 25-34 with a college degree has increased at a rate that’s slightly higher than the national average. Some counties and towns have seen their populations grow by over 10 percent. “We are seeing a correlation between those communities that have embraced the creative economy—be it music, crafts, or outdoor tourism—and those that are seeing population increases,” Christensen says.

Not every old mining town can become the next creative capital, however. Some are too hard to reach, and a few are simply not yet ready for change. But for many residents of Southwest Virginia, it’s increasingly clear that sitting back and doing nothing is not an option. “There’s a real sense of urgency. We’ve got to be aggressive and assertive, and we cannot coast, because our friends and neighbors are still struggling,” Blevins says. “We’re headed in the right direction. It’s just that it’s a race against time. It’s the work of a generation, but we just can’t have it take that long.”