Taking a Leap to Reach ‘Sustainable’
[imgbelt img=solarroof320.jpg]In one of the premier coal counties of Appalachia, a new initiative is pushing for an alternative foundation for the local economy and culture.
In 1931 the Williamson, West Virginia, Chamber of Commerce released a booklet celebrating the town. The cover shows, embedded within a cartoon heart, a photograph of the Williamson skyline. We see a bustling, industrious town perched above the Tug River with a railroad shifting coal cars to and from the rest of Appalachia. At the bottom of the booklet’s cover is Williamson’s slogan: “Heart of the Billion-Dollar Coal Field.”
Today, much of that 1930s infrastructure has survived. Williamson, the Mingo County seat, still has the railroad and the coal industry, but the county population has shrunk to a third of what it was in 1930 — a trend that isn’t stopping. The county's population decreased five percent in the last ten years alone. Worse, too little of the billion dollars has remained at home. Nearly 27% of residents live in poverty, including 34% of the children.
“There’s a fixation about calling out what the problem is instead of fixing it,” says Eric Mathis, President of The JOBS Project. Along with the Williamson Redevelopment Authority and other local partners, The JOBS Project has created a new approach to economic development called Sustainable Williamson, a comprehensive effort to make this one of the healthiest greenest, and most economically viable cities in central Appalachia. If the model finds success in West Virginia, it might then be replicated throughout struggling mountain communities in Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
For Mathis, an always-smiling man, it’s not enough for Williamson to return to where it was in its heyday. He believes it should set the example the rest of the nation follows. So does Mayor Darrin McCormick.