A New Kind of Energy
Deep in the heart of coal country, Williamson, WV could have easily resigned itself to be a casualty of the decline in the industry that built it. But this Mingo County town is proving it’s powered by an even greater energy source: a hopeful community.
By Amy Arnett
“Williamson is the county seat of Mingo County, the chief city and trade center not only for the county but for a population of more than 100,000 people who live within 35 miles of the city. There is no other city closer than Huntington so large or so important.”
This excerpt begins a 1931 promotional pamphlet published by the Williamson Chamber of Commerce hoping to generate business and tourism for their town, nicknamed the Heart of the Billion-Dollar Coal Field. Having just completed the 1930 census with a population of 9,410, Williamson was a growing community, flourishing in coal country atop a site that was nothing but a cornfield a mere 35 years earlier.
The town was in its heyday in 1931. Coal—and plenty of it—was dug by hand and transported by rail. Norfolk Southern Railway built a large marshalling yard in the town, a symbol of how valuable a commerce and industry center it was. And the residents mostly walked where they needed to go.
Today, Williamson stands as a community of roughly 3,000 residents along the Tug Fork River and the state line between West Virginia and Kentucky. A flood wall encircles the city, built in 1991 by the Army Corps of Engineers to protect Williamson from the all-too-common, devastating floods that had washed away historic parts of the town and caused economic struggles for local businesses. Coal trains pass through frequently, punctuating conversations with their horns and serving as reminders of the coal and timber industries that once thrived and still forge on in the region. In Williamson’s downtown proper, 65 tons of bituminous coal serve as a shrine to industry heritage in the form of The Coal House, which now houses the Tug Valley Chamber of Commerce, replacing the Williamson Chamber of Commerce in 1933.
There is one visible similarity about the two periods in time; you can still see people walking through town. The walking is less of a transportation necessity these days, though. Instead, it’s part of a movement for the town to take back their health, happiness and prosperity called Sustainable Williamson.
Challenges and Opportunities
The U.S. Department of Agriculture categorizes Williamson as a food desert, defined as an area where a substantial share of residents do not have ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. Partially because of the food desert status and partially because of factors such as poverty levels and a lack of health education, the prevalence of diabetes and obesity in Williamson has been a major concern for the community.
A vision for a healthier Williamson—both physically and economically—was the catalyst for Sustainable Williamson. The first major step toward beginning a community-wide revitalization was Williamson’s designation as a Blueprint Community in 2007, which offered strategic training for community development through the West Virginia Community Development Hub (WV Hub). In 2010, the city participated in the WV Hub’s 23-month Community Development Achievement Program, also called HubCAP, in order to focus grant-funded efforts on specific projects. Through these achievement programs, community leaders began learning more about opportunities for Williamson and, more importantly, how to make them a reality.
The Williamson Health and Wellness Center (WHWC), led by Dr. Dino Beckett, has been central to Sustainable Williamson’s initiatives by providing high-quality, low-cost health services to residents. The federal-quality health center—the only one in the state—is leading the way in general education on how to live healthier, happier lives.
In 2011, the Mingo County Diabetes Coalition was organized by Vicki Hatfield, Beckett and other community leaders as a part of the Southeastern Diabetes Initiative funded by Duke University. The coalition staff is directed by Jenny Hudson and works in conjunction with the WHWC’s clinical team to improve wellness in the region, including Mingo County and nearby Pike County, KY.
“The diabetes coalition is focused on access issues,” says Hudson. “How do we reach outside the clinic? We do that by looking at access to healthy eating, physical activity and active living. The other part is access to care through community health workers.”
Creating a culture where physical activity is community-minded and considered part of daily life has been a top priority for the coalition. Staffer Alexis Batausa joined the coalition in 2012 and got to work generating buzz about the availability of activities in Williamson and the positivity that comes with getting moving. Since he came on board, Batausa has completed two lunch run/walk competitions and the Take 10 Healthy Challenge for middle school students and helped initiate the Tug Valley Road Runners Club, weekly exercise classes and the Hatfield McCoy Health Feud, where participants walk 100 miles in 100 days.
Healthy eating in a food desert is, by nature, a challenge, but the coalition and Sustainable Williamson have made strides on every front from local agriculture cultivation, cooking classes and support of restaurants like 34:Ate, a lunch spot downtown that uses locally sourced ingredients.
The community has unified and embraced these efforts, according to Sustainable Williamson’s leaders, but their word isn’t the only evidence. Accolades have been pouring in for Williamson, including being awarded the 2014 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Prize for their outstanding achievements.
A Fresh Start
Another excerpt from the chamber of commerce’s 1931 promotional materials explains that Mingo County is a mountainous and rugged country but with some land well-adapted to farming and gardening. “The hills furnish fine grazing and grow excellent fruit, but these industries have not been developed to any large extent,” it continues.
The writers of the pamphlet knew Williamson’s strengths were diverse, but they also knew the coal industry was powering their economy just fine. Those who call Mingo County home today don’t take resources for granted as easily. The agricultural heritage of West Virginia, though it hadn’t been fully developed in Williamson previously, has become a key element in solving the fresh food availability problem for the region.
A garden is blooming in Williamson, and community spirit is growing right alongside it. The Ramella Park Garden of Eatin’, as it’s known, sits strategically across the street from several low-income housing units on a plot of land that was designated for recreational use because of its susceptibility to flooding.
The garden features three high tunnel greenhouses, as well as outdoor raised beds plotted with a variety of herbs, crops and produce.
The garden is almost exclusively volunteer-powered, and accessibility to the garden has been an asset in getting the community invested in its success. The operations of the garden have expanded to include numerous residents, such as an active outreach to veterans and contributions from local professionals like Bruce and Ingrid Curry, who designed plans for the grounds.
The fruits of labor from the community garden have opened a new door for development through a farmers market operated beginning in May each year. Since its start, supply and demand have grown enough to create a mobile market, a trailer that volunteers use to transport their fresh food to other parts of the region to sell. In total, the market has generated approximately $76,000 since it opened and has expanded to partnering with local restaurants to supply them with locally grown foods.
Where Tradition Meets Opportunity
Williamson’s coal heritage is unique, and it is a source of pride for the city. Residents aren’t interested in turning their back on their history, so they have worked to combine their natural resources like reclaimed mine sites with efforts to include alternative energy. Former strip mine sites now serve as a campground and the Mingo County Orchard.
Additionally, solar and geothermal energy projects have been successfully completed on rooftops of the WHWC, fire department and Mountaineer Hotel, with at least two more planned. The solar projects aren’t just producing energy; they offer new training opportunities for out-of-work miners and a potential for solar industry employment.
The strategies the leaders of Sustainable Williamson have employed are ones they hope will not only stick but will multiply into an even bigger boost for their region and beyond. Pooling resources from a long list of partners, from individuals to national organizations, has created an infectious, invigorating energy in Mingo County they hope will be a collaborative, replicable model for other communities.
“It’s contagious. If you come in and participate in Sustainable Williamson, it gets a hold of you,” says Darrin McCormick, executive assistant to Dino Beckett and a founding member of the Sustainable Williamson team. “We are trying to educate people that come here. We’re trying to maximize resources and minimize the impact. We’re trying to change the way people perceive how to do things.”