Mingo County warily turns to ATV tourism

MINGO COUNTY — Jamie Cantrell was once fortunate: For twenty years, she was once considered one of a dwindling collection of Mingo County natives to carry onto a forged task within the coal {industry}. However in 2020, she was once laid off from her task promoting uncooked coal. 

“I used to be devastated,” Cantrell mentioned. “So I mentioned to my husband, ‘Let’s do one thing with the path device.’”

Cantrell had watched as tourism introduced increasingly more cash into Mingo County, pushed in large part by way of the outlet of the Hatfield-McCoy ATV trails. Like many citizens who had caught round because the coal {industry}’s decline took its toll on their communities and neighbors, she idea the shift towards tourism introduced hope that the city the place she grew up may just leap again.

LeRoy and Jamie Cantrell of their Matewan eating place, Trailhead Bar and Grill. Photograph by way of Roger Would possibly

Since Cantrell additionally labored managing a close-by campsite, she knew there was once an urge for food for a spot to get a drink and a few hearty meals. So she and her husband purchased and renovated an area in downtown Matewan. In March, the Trailhead Bar and Grill opened. And to this point, industry has been nice.

Mingo County is present process a sluggish transformation. As soon as it was once the center of a thriving coal {industry} that introduced heart magnificence jobs and supported native companies, however the {industry}’s decline ended in a long time of steep financial and inhabitants losses. Now, citizens and officers are pinning their hope on tourism, regardless that cautious of making some other single-industry economic system.

Longtime Mingo County citizens can level to precise moments, like marks on a graph, for instance the decline in their the town’s economic system. There was once the flood of 1977 that noticed portions of the county seat, Williamson, drown in over 50 toes of water, killing 22 folks and destroying many houses and companies within the better Tug Valley space. 

In 1984, Williamson flooded once more, regardless that no longer as significantly. That ended in a small exodus.

The marquee of a shuttered film theater in Williamson reads, “God bless The usa.” Photograph by way of Roger Would possibly.

Within the early Nineties, the U.S. Military Corps of Engineers constructed floodwalls round Williamson and Matewan. Whilst the ones most probably staved off additional screw ups, citizens additionally say the floodwalls directed site visitors across the towns, particularly Matewan, striking additional pressure on an economic system that was once already crumbling from the lack of coal jobs.

In 2011, prime faculties closed in Delbarton, Gilbert, Matewan and Williamson, and scholars had been despatched to a consolidated highschool. 

All over all of it, coal manufacturing and coal jobs dissipated. The severance taxes paid by way of coal firms gotten smaller too, hamstringing hopes of native government-funded revival. Now, the county’s inhabitants is set part what it was once in 1950. 

Jim Pajarillo, 49, is a felony protection attorney in Williamson. On a bench in the back of his place of work not too long ago, he chain-smoked American Spirit cigarettes and recalled what the outdated Williamson Prime College supposed to his early life, and to the group at massive.

Jim Pajarillo is a felony protection attorney in Williamson. Photograph by way of Roger Would possibly

Many that went there glance again on the college with satisfaction, remembering the soccer staff or marching band. It was once additionally, as soon as, quite various. Pajarillo was once considered one of quite a lot of scholars from Asian immigrant households, and he mentioned he by no means felt misplaced. At its height, the realm additionally had a quite sizable Jewish inhabitants, however the one synagogue closed in 2009.

The varsity was once additionally a earnings supply for Williamson companies. On the finish of the college day, children would flood into native shops and eating places.

Now, the highschool is kind of a 30-minute pressure from the middle of the town. Children who take the bus get up early and get house overdue.

“We all know what we had after we had been younger,” Pajarillo mentioned. “Now we’ve got even much less.”

Since he moved again to Williamson after a tender maturity spent in California, Pajarillo has devoted himself to reviving one of the vital alternatives awarded to him by way of the city the place he grew up. With the exception of his paintings as a attorney, Pajarillo sits at the board of the Tamarack Basis for the Arts, a West Virginia nonprofit devoted to fostering native artwork.

He’s begun an open mic tournament, began artwork categories for youngsters and introduced an area comics conference referred to as WillCon, which attracted just about 3,000 folks sooner than the pandemic.

Tourism, he hopes, will construct a larger target audience for a few of these occasions and convey cash into the native arts scene. Pajarillo desires to make use of that platform to reframe Williamson’s narrative, which has been so outlined by way of the decline of coal and the opioid disaster.

“There are not any pie charts that display what an artwork magnificence or a song magnificence advantages the group, however you simply more or less need to take a jump of religion,” he mentioned.

Round Williamson, indicators of revival are budding. Whether or not it’s the outlet of a number of new eating places, the recovery of the ancient Mountaineer Lodge, or simply the sound of 4 wheelers at the streets — an indication of visitors the usage of the Hatfield-McCoy trails.

Just like the coal {industry} put cash in folks’s wallet to spend at native shops, tourism is bringing consumers and spreading the wealth to people who can have the funds for to take a position. And whilst cautious, citizens hope they’re starting to chart the opposite of the commercial cave in of the final a number of a long time. 

Some level to the outlet of the Hatfield-McCoy trails in 2000 as the start of a turnaround. Extra not too long ago, the pandemic introduced extra vacationers serious about the type of nature-focused holidays that the realm gives. 

Nonetheless, the path device has but to herald the collection of guests that early supporters promised, and different companies that may dangle vacationers’ consideration had been sluggish to expand.

The Leader Logan statue in downtown Williamson in entrance of the Coal Space, a present store run by way of the Tug Valley Chamber of Trade. Photograph by way of Roger Would possibly

Williamson Mayor Charles Hatfield says that financial diversification is vital to the city’s long run.

“We gotta shake the bonds of being depending on one {industry},” he mentioned. However there are vital stumbling blocks: the realm’s topography isn’t supreme for the type of infrastructure that may draw in {industry}, broadband and cellular carrier problems persist, and citizens are older and less.

“I’m no longer a idiot,” Hatfield mentioned. “Tourism won’t exchange the good-paying jobs of mining coal, and the railroad {industry}, which was once an ancillary section.” 

Williamson Mayor Charles Hatfield. Photograph by way of Ian Karbal

Alternatively, he hopes that tourism will bolster different native companies, and power new industry homeowners to get fascinated with such things as beautification and making the realm extra sexy to younger folks and households.

Crystal Little, 35, is the type of native industry proprietor who Hatfield hopes will take pleasure in a larger vacationer economic system. 

When she was once a child in Delbarton, Little was once allergic to cats and canines, so her grandparents were given her a gecko. That was once the start of her fascination with unique pets. 

For years, Little bred them — most commonly reptiles — and offered them to fanatics over the web and at unique puppy presentations.

In March 2021, Little opened a puppy retailer in Williamson, Sky Prime Geckos. It was once onerous to get any buy-in for an unproven industry in a suffering the town.

Crystal Little presentations off her reptiles in her Williamson retailer, Sky Prime Geckos. Photograph by way of Roger Would possibly

“I used to be in truth laughed at by way of a large number of male retailer homeowners round right here,” Little mentioned.

However Little in the end discovered improve from a landlord enthusiastic about what the industry may just carry to the tradition of Williamson. He labored along with her to stay her deposit reasonably priced. Now, the native chamber of trade and the mayor talk extremely of Little.

“I by no means idea the native politicians would improve the loopy gecko girl,” Little mentioned. “However right here we’re.”

Little most commonly sells puppy provides. However on a day in June, a circle of relatives thought to be which of a pen of rabbits they may undertake, and Little confirmed her latest pets to some other common who was once simply there to appear.

However empty storefronts encompass her retailer. Years in the past, there have been two running theaters inside blocks. Now, each are closed.

A mural at the facet of the Town Insurance coverage development in Williamson presentations the water ranges of ancient floods. Photograph by way of Ian Karbal

Mingo County citizens who need to get started companies and assist revitalize the realm face prime prices to take a position. Outdoor buyers should buy up belongings to run mattress and breakfasts, or simply dangle onto holiday houses. 

Consistent with Leigh Ann Ray, grant coordinator with the Mingo County Fee, county citizens are at an obstacle. Many don’t have a lot cash, or have unfavorable credit ratings, or are simply simple cautious of making an investment after a long time of decline. For years, citizens say, it was once taken as a truism that, to seek out alternative, citizens needed to go away Mingo County.

Ray, who grew up simply over the Tug Fork River in Kentucky, doesn’t see a subject matter with out of doors funding. 

“Cash is cash and funding is funding,” Ray mentioned. “If anyone is making an investment for your space, what does it subject, geography?”

However no longer everybody concurs.

Dave Wesley Hatfield, 63, runs an Airbnb in addition to Appalachian Misplaced and Discovered, a memento retailer in Matewan that still doubles as one thing of a common retailer. After 30 years as a locomotive engineer, Hatfield determined to stay in his place of origin and put money into the rising vacationer economic system, which he felt was once one thing of an obligation.

Operating at the railroad, Hatfield mentioned, “I noticed complete neighborhoods, companies, simply disappear over 30 years. Simply general decimation… I didn’t need to see that occur right here.”

David Wesley Hatfield in his retailer, Appalachian Misplaced & Present in Matewan. Photograph by way of Roger Would possibly

Whilst the possibility of tourism has given him a possibility to develop a industry in his place of origin, one thing that he isn’t positive would had been imaginable 10 years in the past, he’s no longer satisfied that the {industry} will clear up the realm’s financial issues.

“[We] have a large number of folks from out of doors the realm who’re making an investment right here,” he mentioned. “So that you’re developing the similar factor you had sooner than. It’s extraction.”

However for Wilson Chafin, 74, who lives on the finish of the similar block as Hatfield’s retailer, some issues in regards to the space won’t ever alternate. He sits on a bench out of doors his house and around the boulevard from the Mine Wars Museum that commemorates the realm’s bloody exertions struggles within the early twentieth century.

In spite of the ebbs and flows of the economic system since his early life — and a long time of his grownup lifestyles spent clear of West Virginia — Matewan is house and Chafin doesn’t consider leaving. 

“I left house when I used to be 18, got here again when I used to be grown, but it surely’s the similar outdated mountains,” he mentioned. “I by no means get bored of taking a look on the mountains.”

Wilson Chafin. Photograph by way of Roger Would possibly

Chafin doesn’t assume that the coal and oil industries are coming again. He blames environmental rules and regulatory crimson tape.

However he hopes that the mountains will also be repurposed by way of long run generations, and as soon as once more turn out to be the lifeblood of his place of origin.

“It’s onerous to visualise what it could seem like,” he mentioned. “However I’m actual positive.”