From the Ground Up

August 18, 2017

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From  the Ground Up

By Katlin Swisher
Photography by Coalfield development Corporation

Brandon Dennison,
CEO of Coalfield Development Corporation.

According to Brandon Dennison, the CEO of Coalfield Development Corporation, the number one problem West Virginia employers report is finding skilled workers to fill their open positions.

While there are more jobs available than what is typically construed, West Virginia simply does not have the qualified workforce to fill those jobs.

Coalfield Development Corporation is working to change that reality.

“This is a major inhibitor in any effort to recruit new business to the state, but worse than that, our workforce crisis makes it tough for existing businesses to stay here,” says Dennison. “Any serious economic revitalization plan in this state needs to make major, long-lasting investments of money, time and energy into workforce development and higher education, but these investments can’t just be the same old programs. While tax credits and job training are important, the effort won’t be complete until the human development component is embraced and integrated.”

The Social Enterprise Solution

Founded in 2010 in Wayne, WV, by local volunteers concerned about poor quality housing, Coalfield Development Corporation has expanded its efforts to support community-based real estate, business and workforce development and community partnerships all over Southern West Virginia through a family of social enterprises.

“We still do housing work, but we realized pretty quickly that to really change the trajectory of opportunity in our community, we needed to create jobs and provide much more holistic opportunities than just housing,” says Dennison. “We are essentially trying to rebuild the Appalachian economy from the ground up. Rather than a top-down, government approach, we’re being entrepreneurial and modeling viable business concepts that have real sustainable potential here in our region. For so long there’s been big talk about the need to diversify our economy in West Virginia. Our work is so important because it’s actually doing that.”

Coalfield Development Corporation’s family of social enterprises—Reclaim Appalachia, Rediscover Appalachia, Refresh Appalachia, Revitalize Appalachia and Rewire Appalachia—blend for-profit and nonprofit approaches, combining the efficiency and revenue benefits of the private sector with the compassion and risk-taking nature of the social sector.

Each of Coalfield Development Corporation’s social enterprises operates like an independent business and will eventually become stand-alone subsidiaries. They are led by entrepreneurial presidents responsible for the success of the ventures.

“We have an interesting, unique, distinctive, beautiful place,” says Dennison. “The problem is we don’t have jobs, infrastructure—mainly internet—or diverse cultural offerings to go along with these strengths, at least not to a great enough degree. Instead of focusing our development efforts on one or two big industrial parks usually located near population centers, we could get more bang for our buck by helping multiple small towns and communities with creative placemaking projects that breathe new life into our charming downtowns.”

Inspiration for Action

The idea for Coalfield Development Corporation came to Dennison during a home repair mission trip to Williamson, WV.

“As we were working, two young men approached us,” Dennison recalls. “They had tool belts slung over their shoulders and asked us if we had work available. I explained that we were volunteers and had no money to pay, and the young men went on their way. It felt like such a small, minor moment, but that moment really stayed with me and impacted me. It represented a primary problem we face in Southern West Virginia. We have people who want to work and learn and be a part of something. We have gumption, but because our communities are so distressed and depressed, there are no opportunities to apply that gumption. This makes me angry, and that experience planted a seed of conviction in me.”

Dennison believes the social enterprise model is a way to overcome West Virginia’s generational problems, or cycles, in which two, three or even four generations have not grown up in an environment where their parents work for a living to support themselves and their families. This type of poverty differs from circumstantial poverty, such as when an individual from a stable background suddenly loses their job and faces a money shortage.

“Generational poverty leads to really complicated dynamics for those of us trying to do something about poverty,” he says. “There are psychological, emotional, social and many other types of issues at play all at one time. We have to believe in people and encourage them toward their full potential, power and purpose in life. At Coalfield, we never tell people what their purpose is, but we push each other to figure it out and stay committed to it.”

Educating the Workforce

The success of Coalfield Development Corporation’s five enterprises is based on a unique work model created to help employees learn and develop a modern skill set they may not have learned in high school or pursued with higher education, which helps address serious issues with West Virginia’s untrained workforce.

Each of the enterprises’ employees follow the 33-6-3 model for their work weeks: 33 hours of paid work at one of the five enterprises, six hours of higher education coursework in pursuit of an associate’s degree in applied science and three hours of personal development and mentorship in soft skills like time management, emotional health, physical health and goal setting.

Graduation occurs once a crew member has earned an associate’s degree from Mountwest Community & Technical College or Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College and has received at least four professional certifications.

“The 33-6-3 model creates a real opportunity. It’s holistic, it leads to personal assets that benefit a person for their entire life, and it fosters dignity,” says Dennison. “Because these are real jobs and real projects that improve the community, our crew members can feel deep pride in being part of something bigger than themselves. All of this learning and growing takes place in a supportive environment that’s conducive to growth. It’s a truly transformative opportunity, and it’s a chance to break generational poverty cycles. Many people in West Virginia have faced such hardship for so long that they need a lot of patient support to be able to learn and grow and develop modern skill sets.”

A Model for the State

Dennison aspires to see the state embrace its geography and size as a strength.

“I think a key strategy to overcoming this problem is creative placemaking, which is an approach to positive social change that builds character of place and remains true to the distinctness of place,” he says. “Creative placemaking projects can be hitched with entrepreneurship support to lead to local economies founded on family-owned businesses and creative enterprise. Rather than focusing on big, corporate industry, I think we should prioritize entrepreneurship and embrace our smallness and rugged terrain as a strength rather than a weakness. We’ll never have 10 million people living here, and that’s okay—it’s good, even. And there’s no reason young people wouldn’t want to be a part of our small, close-knit communities if only we could strengthen these small places and make them more vibrant.”

As West Virginia continues to face major challenges, from a drug epidemic and low rankings in nearly every area to a budget deficit, shrinking population and brain drain, Coalfield Development Corporation is striving to combat these trends. To date, it has launched five businesses, created 60 new jobs, supported 250 professional certifications for formerly unemployed individuals and redeveloped more than 175,000 square feet of dilapidated property.

“The way to dig out from the holes we find ourselves in as West Virginians is to stop whining and complaining, doggedly pursue solutions to problems and focus on the mission at hand, which is to unlock the full potential of this state,” says Dennison. “There is no white knight coming to save us. We can’t just hope for or beg a 1,000-job employer to pick us. We must do this work ourselves, from the bottom up. We are proof of what can be done, even in some of the most difficult parts of our state and, frankly, our country.”

Despite the weekly calls from public officials seeking to bring Coalfield Development Corporation’s model to their communities, Dennison is confident the company can maintain its fundamental approach to economic development: one person, one empty building, one reclaimed mine and one business at a time.

“What excites me more than doing that is us building the capacity of local organizations to replicate our model themselves,” he says. “I don’t want Coalfield to ever become a big, bureaucratic blob. This is not about empire building. This is about collaboratively rebuilding the Appalachian economy from the ground up and doing so in a way that lasts well past my life. An enterprise that’s created and owned and cultivated by local people who love their place and are deeply committed to it will be far more effective and sustainable than one huge organization planting its flag all over a region.”

In the future, Dennison hopes to expand Coalfield Development Corporation’s social enterprises to transportation, logistics, auto mechanics and technology.

“West Virginia is one of the most interesting and beautiful places on earth. I really mean that. I’ve had the privilege of traveling to Europe, Nepal, Botswana and 47 U.S. states, and I can honestly say I’ve never found another place more interesting than West Virginia,” says Dennison. “These other places were all inspiring and fascinating and enriching, but they never surpassed West Virginia. We don’t want to just suburbanize and become like so many other boring places. There’s a quirkiness and a realness here that we need to keep.”

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