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In W.Va., a new air of optimism

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WELCH, W.Va. -- Coal, which built McDowell County, nearly destroyed it. As technology mechanized the work, jobs were cut. As mineral prices fell, jobs were cut. As easily worked seams disappeared, jobs were cut.

Companies left, and the people did too. McDowell County, once one of the largest coal producers in the nation, lost three-quarters of its population in the past 50 years.

Now, in this poorest corner of the poorest state in the nation, something remarkable is happening: Jobs are coming back.

It's not only here. It's a microcosm of the state. West Virginia is benefiting from a recharged coal industry at the same time that construction and tourism also are going strong. Its unemployment rate has dipped below 4 percent in recent months, better than the nation - better than the state has ever seen.

It is by no means a complete turnaround. The bad years have exacted a toll that can be seen in every exhausted building in danger of collapsing into the mountainside. But there is finally enough momentum to get somewhere.

The number of producing mines statewide jumped by 20 percent last year as soaring coal prices - now $52 a ton compared with $22 in early 2000 - led companies to start new operations and reopen old ones. National retail chains are moving in, particularly around Morgantown. A Toyota plant near Charleston keeps expanding.

"There's a real feeling of optimism in the state right now that we may have turned a corner," said Calvin A. Kent, a business professor at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va. "We still have major problems we have to overcome, but on the whole, it's nice to be in a position where we can say, 'Come back to West Virginia. We have well-paying jobs here if you come back.'"

Bob Johnson, 65, can attest to that. For years he saw his family in McDowell County only every other weekend because he had to roam the country, building coal conveyor systems. Now he stays home.

"We've got three jobs going on around here, all in McDowell," he said over the rumble of trucks.

Some West Virginia counties are growing quickly, adding middle-class jobs and sprouting signs of affluence: Starbucks coffee shops, glassy office towers, gated communities. But others continue to lose people as they struggle to hold on to minimum-wage jobs and battle widespread poverty.

Overall, it is the poorest state in the nation, cheek by jowl with one of the richest. The median household income is $31,500 in West Virginia, $57,500 in Maryland.

Coal industry jobs pay about $50,000 here. That is why the steady losses over the past generation were so devastating. And why the recent turnaround - 4,000 mining jobs added in the past two years - is being met with cheers as the ripple it creates helps lift other businesses as well as the public coffers.

The Sago Mine explosion that killed 12 here in January - followed by more deadly mine accidents in and outside the state - is a potent reminder of the danger. And the increasing mountaintop removal in search of coal is alarming environmentalists. But the money's hard to beat.

"We've had miners called back to work recently that were laid off 15 years," said Rich Eddy, a United Mine Workers of America vice president. "I started in the mines in 1973, and this, right now, is probably the best I've seen."

That's the story in McDowell County, known for the 1999 film October Sky, a true tale about a miner's son whose passion for rocketry was his ticket out. Alpha Natural Resources just opened a 120-employee mine in the tiny town of Cucumber - the largest new operation in the county that anyone can remember in three decades.

"This," said sales manager Rick Taylor, "is what I call the resurgence of coal."

It's flowing off the conveyor belt before him almost continually, falling into big, dark piles that trucks have lined up to move. Just down the road, 50 full railroad cars sit on the tracks, ready to go.

Mine superintendent Teddy Sharp, 54, who sees 15 years of life in the complex, said: "I think most of the people working at this mine can retire here."

Todd Richardson, 30, a mine clerk, joined Alpha Natural Resources last year because he saw long-term stability - and because the pay and benefits beat his previous job as a hydraulic company salesman. He and his wife are building a house now, putting down permanent roots in the town in which he grew up.

"A time or two, we thought we might move," he said. "But then this job opportunity came."

If any place offers a lesson in the dangers of relying solely on the coal economy, however, McDowell is it. The county is still feeling the effects of past losses.

Even with the upturn, joblessness in the county is officially 7.3 percent. It's really far higher; many residents have given up looking. Half the households make less than $19,000 a year. Beside the dizzyingly winding roads are hollowed-out homes clinging to hills, clothes drying on lines, signs that beg "for sale" or "for lease."

"There ain't no jobs around here," said Shauna Padgett, 27, out with her 3-year-old son on Welch's almost-bare streets. She said she has been looking a year and a half for something. Anything.

In the state's Eastern Panhandle - a six-hour drive north, but a world away - the signs say "now hiring" and "$500 signing bonus." This is the bookend to McDowell, a booming region pulling in commuters with Washington-area paychecks and sprouting huge suburban houses. Charles Town boasts "villas" overlooking golf greens, a theater company and a Jeep dealership. Chain restaurants are moving in - corporate America's stamp of approval.

Some of the outsiders who help fuel tourism in the state - a sector that meant 1,300 new jobs last year - come here to gamble at Charles Town Races & Slots. And many of the 2,200 construction jobs created statewide last year owe their existence to the panhandle population boom.

More surprising, perhaps, is that spots far from Washington are blossoming every bit as much.

Putnam County, a suburb of Charleston, is getting gated communities. "Gated," repeats Joe Jarvis, a state worker who wonders who is buying the huge homes.

This is where Toyota opened its West Virginia plant. Since production began eight years ago, it has tripled its employment to 1,000, and will soon add 150 more well-paying jobs. So many Japanese companies have moved in - some to sell to Toyota - that the county's economic development director flies to Tokyo every year.

At the north end of the state, in Fairmont, is a pleasant earth-toned technology park that could double for any in the Baltimore suburbs if it weren't for the huge model rocket outside the building used by NASA.

And just up the road is Morgantown, home of West Virginia University, which wouldn't fit anyone's idea of Appalachia if it weren't for the mountains.

The city's old industrial wharf district is being turned into condos, restaurants and upscale offices filled with operations such as the anti-terrorist National Biometric Security Project. A sprawling sports complex is under construction at a former strip mine. On the site of another closed mine, workers are expanding a cluster of stores that includes Old Navy and Barnes & Noble.

Morgantown added jobs so quickly in the 12 months ending in April that it outpaced all but one other metro area in the country. Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine just named the city to its list of "50 Smart Places to Live."

"A lot of things have kind of come together at once," said Donald Reinke, economic development director for the area.

In McDowell County, at the far southern tip of the state, there are no universities or expansive highways to spur growth. And the mountains are so ever-present here, so tall and so close in, that construction is a logistical nightmare.

"This is probably the most difficult place to do economic development anywhere," said Rachel Lester, executive director of the local economic development authority.

But even here, hard-fought efforts to go beyond the coal industry are beginning to get somewhere.

A state prison opened in a closed hospital in Welch three months ago, employing 120. A federal prison that would employ 300 to 350 is expected to break ground up the road, possibly this year, though the funding is in jeopardy.

A Wal-Mart supercenter rose on the site of a closed store last fall, a relief for residents who were driving an hour into Virginia to shop. Contractors are flattening several hundred acres so the county can market the site to businesses. A state agency is about to open an all-terrain-vehicle trail on old coal roads, an effort that has brought thousands of tourists to counties with such networks.

Lester, the economic development director, is remarkably cheerful about her job, perhaps because it's not quite as difficult as it was six years ago, when her first paycheck bounced. Now she's getting calls from developers who are interested in clustering stores near the new Wal-Mart and building hotels.

In the meantime, Crystal Green, 36, office manager for a new landfill near Welch, says it is the best job she has ever had. Within walking distance, instead of the 80-minute drive she once had. Health insurance, for the first time. A 401(k), even.

For Sandy Etter, 51, the landfill's operations manager, an hour's commute from his home in Virginia is more than worth it. There's not much going on where he lives.

"A lot of us look over here for the opportunity to work," he said outside his new office, and the discordant symphony of rumbling trucks and earthmovers all around him offered an exclamation point.

jamie.smith.hopkins@baltsun.com

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