Written by Jay Farley, Appalachian Magazine
In 2014, the West Virginia legislature voted to name Take Me Home Country Roads an official state song.
Though the folks in the Mountain State love singing this John Denver classic at Mountaineer Field in Morgantown, 170 miles to the south, the residents of what was formerly known as “coal country” have had just about as much as they can handle of their country roads.
Long before the time when Jay Rockefeller lived in the Governor’s Mansion and yard signs could be spotted throughout Mingo County declaring, “these roads could ‘rock-a-feller'”, residents of Southern West Virginia have been fighting and scraping for basic infrastructure — especially when it comes to their country roads.
In the 1970s, things became so dire, that residents in the tiny community of Vulcan even went so far as to petition the Soviet Union for foreign aid during the height of the Cold War in order to get a broken down bridge replaced. The bridge served as the only entrance and exit to their tiny village, yet state leaders seemed disinterested in fixing the structure until the nation’s sworn enemy used the event to internationally shame America and the Mountain State.
The latter half of the 20th century was difficult for this region, as dozens of counties were forced to harvest the fruits of more than a century’s worth of absentee landownership and a universal mindset that seemed to view the state’s southern counties with little more regard than how a 19th century empire saw distant mineral colonies; colonies and peoples created for the sole purpose of making fat cats in far away cities even wealthier.
A testament to this failed system can be spotted along the pathway of US Route 52: Once a busy thoroughfare that linked the Upper Midwest to the Southland, the winding dusty road is now a panorama of destruction for countless miles. Until one has witnessed this “American carnage” firsthand, views that more closely resemble scenes from the latest apocalyptic Hollywood thriller than an American community, it is impossible for he or she to understand just how catastrophic things in this forgotten region of the nation have become.
To put the carnage into perspective, McDowell County had 98,887 residents in 1950. In 2015, that number had withered to 25,292.
In 2015, McDowell County had the highest rate of drug-induced deaths of any county in the entire nation, with 141 deaths per 100,000 people — ten times the national average. Neighboring Wyoming County, West Virginia, had the second highest rate in the country.
Sadly, these problems aren’t unique to one or two localities. The level of misery in many places of the Mountain State has reached a whole new level. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the entire state is estimated to have lost a net total of 9,951 residents between 2015 and 2016. This equates to a net loss of 27 individuals each day.
Why? Why are drugs running rampant and the general populace so miserable in many places of a state that is so beautiful? Perhaps this is oversimplifying the solution just a little, but not by much, but the simple answer is that there truly aren’t any jobs for people to work in this region and as a result, the average person has one of three options: 1.) settle for a terrible job that doesn’t pay well, generally great distances away; 2.) drown their sorrows and misery in any substance available; or 3.) get out of dodge.
That’s pretty much it.
Were it not so sad, it would be laughable to hear leaders in the legislature fiercely arguing the pros and cons of right-to-work vs. mandatory union membership in a region that has and will have no jobs regardless of either option.
The problem in this region of West Virginia isn’t right to work or unions — states all across the nation are flourishing under both systems. The greatest ill keeping new jobs from being created in Southern West Virginia is that it’s simply not accessible.
Have you ever tried to get to Welch from the industrial hub of Wytheville, Virginia, which, as the crow flies, is only 42 miles away? It’s a heck of an all-day road trip. Tight turns, massive hills, and 25 mph speed traps that seem to prey on out of state tags.
And the same thing can be said for much of the counties of Wyoming, Mingo, and Boone.
Regardless of what one’s opinion about coal is, the reality is this: It won’t last forever and whether it will last into the next decade seems more questionable with each day. So what are we left to do?
IF we’re smart, rather than kick and scream and yell and holler “woe is me”, we’ll do what all the successful economies that have survived the death of their staple industry have done: We’ll start preparing for the future and be receptive to change… Something we haven’t been very good at doing in Appalachia from the first moment our ancestors topped the Blue Ridge – and as a result, our children are paying immensely for our stubbornness.
So what is our future? What is the hope for our economies in the post-coal era?
As a travel writer for a travel website, it feels weird to say this, but tourism is not our future.
Being the home of the Hatfield–McCoy saga is great, but if you think that’s going to be our salvation, you’re crazier than they were… and let’s not kid ourselves, these people weren’t heroes, they were crazies.
Yes, ATV trails have done wonders for a handful of restaurants and tiny inns and a couple of four-wheeler shops, but if any person thinks that being the four-wheeler capital of the world is going to put food on thousands of tables across Southern West Virginia, they’re sorely mistaken.
We must aim for something higher than being another Gatlinburg or Orlando. Because the dirty truth that no one seems to enjoy mentioning about these types of economies is that they make a small percentage of folks on the very top super rich and everyone else finds themselves cleaning hotel rooms or taking tickets for minimum wage.
If the leaders in the state legislature want Southern West Virginia to be competitive in the decades to come, they must make our region attractive to manufacturers. Thanks to generations of boys and girls having spent countless hours in grandpa’s garage, fixing what most others would have thrown away years earlier, we have a population that is ready and capable of producing anything imaginable — the only problem is there is no road capable of bringing in large quantities of raw materials or exporting finished products.
Fortunately, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to finding a solution to this problem.
Twenty years ago, the Federal government began moving forward with a plan to construct Interstate-73, a highway that would link Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to Michigan, and the route would follow the pathway of US-52 through West Virginia — right through the heart of the most economically devastated counties in America.
Sadly, outside of the State of North Carolina, little has been done in two decades in order to move this project forward.
West Virginia has done some intermittent work in patches along US-52, but frankly considering the fact that this country put a man on the moon in less than a decade after setting its mind to do so (with less technology than most calculators have today ), the work that has been done over twenty years time would be laughable… were it not so serious.
Appalachian Magazine recently had the opportunity to speak with West Virginia Senator Greg Boso, who is the chairman of the Senate’s Transportation Committee.
A civil engineer, Boso is familiar with the project and had this to say, “I recognize that the I-73/I-74 corridor is an important piece of transportation infrastructure and hasn’t received its due. This corridor will open up the expanse of southern WV as it provides connectivity between key urban and metropolitan centers with tourism opportunities.”
Boso said that the project could be funded through a public-private partnership arrangement or through a publicly sponsored bonding project with debt service retired through tolling, much as was previously accomplished on the WV Turnpike.
“What we will be doing is taking several pieces of legislation that have been presented and formulating a study resolution that, during the next year, we’ll work cooperatively with the WV Department of Transportation to reasonably understand the impact to the local communities and the opportunity to be successful with projected traffic,” said the senator, adding, “We’ll rely on the assistance of the DOT to help find additional industries that may be utilized to aid in the expansion process that would bring economic development to the southern region of West Virginia.”
Though studies, funding debates and final construction on projects such as these often take years, even decades, each day that passes leaves West Virginia’s population 27 individuals lower, three of whom died from overdoses.
If this legislature, governor and President do anything over the next four years, may it be that they made the most devastated region of the nation accessible and once and for all freed up our economy to do more than mine coal or sell Hatfield & McCoy t-shirts.
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