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Johnson: MCRA has adapted to changing economic times over last 10 years

By Bruce Justice (Mingo Messenger) Dec 17 2021

As executive director of the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, Leasha Johnson has seen Mingo County’s good economic times and its not-so-good times, with the majority of the not-so-good periods mainly having manifested themselves during the past 10 years.

And that, she says, can be laid directly at the doorstep of the coal mining industry — specifically the sharp downturn in that longstanding savior of the Southern West Virginia economy.

In what she characterized as an “economic monoculture” of the coal mining industry and its associated supply chains, the southern coalfields’ economy came to a sharp and inevitable halt by what Johnson refers to as “a perfect storm of factors” — which she said mainly stemmed from the declining price of natural gas, lower demand for coal by electric utilities, and regulatory changes brought about by climate change advocates.

This interruption, she says, forced the coal region into an anticipated transition to a post-coal economy much sooner than was first anticipated.

Fortunately, the MCRA had long anticipated the need for a more diversified economy, even when coal production was at its peak and direct and indirect coal jobs were plentiful. Johnson said these plans for economic diversification were set into motion a number of years ago with the development of the Harless Industrial Park, formerly known as the James H. Harless Wood Products Industrial Park.

By taking full advantage the county’s natural assets job-producing opportunities, she said the county has been able to fulfill the MCRA’s mission since its formation. This has been particularly true in the past 10 years, she added, with work that has emerged into significant developments, which are allowing the MCRA to chart a path toward economic recovery and sustainability.

“It’s hard to imagine, but it’s been 10 years since Mike Whitt passed away,” she said. “Mike was the MCRA’s founding executive director, and he served in that role from 1990 until his passing in November 2011. So many of the MCRA’s accomplishments in the past 10 years represent continuations of the work that Mike and the MCRA board of directors pioneered.”

Mingo County Air Transportation Park an initial step

Johnson said an initial step taken on the path to recovery and sustainability was the Mingo County Air Transportation Park. Started in the early 2000s as a post mine land use project, Johnson said the MCARP was the result of an innovative public/private partnership with coal operator Don Nicewonder, Pocahontas Land Corporation, the Mingo County Airport Authority, the WV DEP, the WV Department of Transportation, the WV Aeronautics Commission, the federal Office of Surface Mine Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), the Federal Aviation Administration, and the MCRA.

The airport was officially opened for air traffic in 2012. However, for the past nine years, and into the foreseeable future, the MCRA has and continues to seek the funding that is necessary to complete the infrastructure expansions to the airport and the surrounding development properties so that the facility can become the economic engine that it was always intended to be.

“The airport represents a nearly $50 million investment, to date, with $35 million worth of earth work by the coal company, a $10 million investment by the FAA to complete the development of the airport facility, a $2 million investment by the Mingo County Airport Authority for the hangars and the fuel farm, a $1.6 million federal investment for the extension of municipal water to serve the airport and the industrial park, a $1 million investment by the state, and a $400,000 local investment,” she said. “With nearly 300 acres of immediately developable property surrounding the airport, one of our primary focuses for the foreseeable future will be the completion of the infrastructure components to the airport, such as sewage treatment, broadband, and completion of the access road, in order for those properties to be effectively marketed for the recruitment of new business and industry.”

Johnson said a 2020 federal award from the U.S. Economic Development Administration has allowed the MCRA to secure engineering and consulting services needed to develop both a master plan and marketing plan for the airport and the surrounding industrial properties. The formalization of these documents, she explained, will provide much needed marketing tools in a highly competitive industry recruitment and site selection market.

In addition to the securing of federal funds and the development of marketing and master plans, she said the MCRA also fostered new partnerships with entities such as the Robert C. Byrd Institute, the WV Department of Economic Development, and the WV National Guard to pursue the development of manufacturing and defense and national security initiatives at the airport. Through these partnerships, she added, the MCRA is a component partner in two “Build Back Better” grant applications.

Johnson maintains the completion of the airport, which has been newly renamed the Southern West Virginia Regional Airport, as well as the airport infrastructure and planning developments that have been made during the past 10 years, are indicative of the MCRA’s development priorities and of economic future the agency hopes to foster for Mingo County.

Tourism represents a major game-changer

With trails tourism already providing significant economic impact in Mingo County, the focus on tourism as a growth sector in a post-coal era seemed more organic in nature than strategically planned.

With the support of the WV Legislature, Johnson said the strategic planning was launched more than 20 years ago at the time when the MCRA first envisioned the Hatfield-McCoy Trails System.

“In the past 20 years, the HMT has grown its footprint to include more than 900 miles of world class trails, but in the past 10 years, specifically, the popularity of the trails and the steady increase in annual permit sales have fostered more entrepreneurial opportunities and investment in Mingo County than ever before,” she said.

As coal jobs and coal supply chain jobs steadily declined, the MCRA, in partnership with the Hatfield McCoy Trail Authority, took designed steps to promote business opportunities that would not only support the existence of the trails system, but that would also cultivate continued growth, Johnson said.

Investments in entrepreneurial businesses like lodging facilities, restaurants, car washes, ATV repair facilities, and other trails related businesses have created direct and indirect jobs in Mingo County, increased the tax base, and led to the attraction of more riders to Mingo County.

“The more riders who visit, the greater the economic impact,” she explained.

Johnson said continued investments in large lodging facilities in Mingo County, such as Twin Hollow Resort, Devil’s Backbone Resort, Canebrake Rentals, Sport Outfitters, and the soon-to-be launched Skyview Properties have led to increased ridership in Mingo County.

She said the number of accommodations and the quality of the visitor experience afforded by these and other resorts on the entire trail system have led to a record year of permit sales, with the 2021 sales total topping 90,000 annual permits.

With more than 50 percent of these permit holders visiting the area more than once a year, she said the economic impact created by the Hatfield McCoy Trails System is increasingly becoming a significant component of Mingo County’s diversified, post-coal economy.

Broadband is a major key to unlocking complete economic diversification

In June of this year, the West Virginia Public Service Commission approved AEP’s Logan/Mingo Broadband Pilot Project’s cost recovery application.

Johnson said the innovative project would result in AEP’s construction of $61.3 million of dollars worth of middle mile fiber in Logan and Mingo Counties. The project includes the installation of 361 miles of 96-strand fiber, which is needed for the development of AEP’s smart grid system, and that an innovative partnership with an internet service provider, GigaBeam Technologies, will lease up to 36 strands of AEP’s middle mile fiber and utilize that fiber to deliver last mile, high speed broadband service to non-served and underserved areas in Mingo and Logan Counties.

The WV Legislature in 2018 passed HB 4619, which established the Middle Mile Fiber Broadband Infrastructure Expansion Program. In passing this legislation, Johnson explained, the Legislature deemed that it was in the public’s interest to expedite construction of middle mile fiber infrastructure in order to provide the necessary architecture to facilitate broadband access to individuals and businesses in non-served areas of the state.

Immediately thereafter, she said, AEP began the lengthy process of identifying areas within its service region with the greatest need for broadband expansion. She said AEP eventually selected Mingo and Logan Counties for this pilot project because, according to FCC maps, both counties were reported to have only 65 percent of residents and businesses served with access to broadband service, and even those numbers were considered exaggerated by the FCC.

She said AEP has approximately 32,000 business and residential customers in Mingo and Logan Counties, and at least 15,000 of those customers are in non-served broadband locations.

“During the hearing with the PSC, AEP representatives testified that the utility has 30 years of experience in deploying and operating a fiber network,” she said. “They own the poles and other infrastructure required to deploy fiber, and this partnership with GigaBeam will allow for the effective delivery of broadband to areas with low population densities that, otherwise, would have never been served.”

Johnson said AEP began constructing the middle mile fiber in November, and that GigaBeam would begin deployment of broadband as AEP completes sections of construction.

“GigaBeam is currently completing the mapping, engineering and right-of-way acquisitions for the broadband expansion, and according to AEP’s timeline, the entire project is expected to be completed within 24 months,” she said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Mingo County. We can expect improved economic health as a result of this broadband expansion project because access to high speed broadband is a necessary precursor to business attraction and retention in any community.

“We can expect more of our student population to have access to the Internet, which is an absolute must in today’s education platforms. And an additional benefit of the project is that it will provide a robust communications platform to facilitate improved reliability of AEP’s electric service throughout Mingo and Logan Counties through deployment of advanced grid modernization technologies, such as advanced metering infrastructure and distribution automation circuits.”

Blue Acre Aquaponics Center playing a role

In 2016, the MCRA was awarded a $3.6 million in federal grant to develop an aquaponics facility powered, in part, by renewable energy on abandoned mine land site in Kermit. The funding was made available through the federal Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) Pilot Fund.

Johnson said the facility utilizes solar energy to power a 20,000 square foot commercial aquaponics facility. Aquaponics is described as a fish production system in which the waste produced by farmed fish supplies nutrients for plants grown hydroponically, which can in turn purify the water, creating sustainably-produced healthy fish and vegetables for local and regional consumers.

Following a lengthy environmental and project planning process, Johnson said the facility was completed in 2020 and currently provides both employment and training opportunities, as well as educational opportunities for local schools. She said Sprouting Farms is the MCRA’s operating partner of this state-of-the-art facility.

The AML Pilot award affords Mingo County a unique opportunity to convert a coal-impacted area into a productive economic reuse that’s both innovative and sustainable, Johnson said.

She said developing an agriculture economy and workforce in the coalfields of Appalachia requires innovation, capacity building, and investment, and we’re confident that the Blue Acre Aquaponics Center will help develop a local food system that creates living wage jobs and provides food for communities in need.

“By serving as a source of healthy local food, jobs, income, and training, Blue Acre Aquaponics signifies a new direction for the region - the start of a more diversified economy built for the 21st Century and the next wave in farming,” she said.

“While it promises to gather momentum and lift a lot of people up, it isn’t the kind of wave that will sweep anyone away or leave them behind. Collectively imagined and locally rooted, Blue Acre’s path and trajectory belong to its community. When you buy Blue Acre foods, you join this community and become part of a larger movement to reshape the economic and local food landscape in West Virginia.”

Federal grants have also played a major role in recovery

Johnson emphasized that Federal grant awards have been an integral part of the MCRA’s work for the past seven years. Since 2015, she said, the MCRA has secured nearly $7 million in federal funds, which has been leveraged by more than $35 million in private and local investment, which she said would expand infrastructure, assess feasibility, and develop marketing and master plans needed to prepare Mingo County for a more sustainable economic future.

Those grants are as follows:

• $3.6 million AML Pilot for the Blue Acre Aquaponics facility

• $1.4 million EDA grant for water/booster station/water tank for the airport

• $1.7 million EDA grant for water/booster station/water tank for Twisted Gun Gap area

• $50,000 USDA grant for feasibility for the Harless Industrial Park

• $98,000 EDA grant for marketing and master plan for the airport

• $50,000 USDA grant for small business development

More positive signs on the highway to a successful economic transition

The Red Jacket section of the King Coal Highway officially opened in August of 2011, marking what Johnson described as “one of the most innovative methods of constructing sections of highway that has ever been achieved in West Virginia.”

Representing another product of the MCRA’s land use master plan, the construction of 15 miles of roadbed to rough grade was completed while coal was being surface mined by Nicewonder Contracting, Inc. The project was the result of a public/private partnership among the coal company (Nicewonder Contracting), Pocahontas Land Corporation, Cotiga Development Corporation, the WV DEP, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the OSMRE, the WV DOT, and the Federal Highway Administration, she said.

Johnson said this post mine land use project is part of the Federal Highway Administration’s I-73/74 corridor which, when completed, will stretch from Michigan to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

“Constructing sections of highway as a post mine land use project results in savings of approximately $20 million per mile in southern West Virginia’s mountainous terrain,” Johnson said. “The Mingo County section of King Coal Highway has provided the start of a much needed transportation corridor that will provide for a safer, more efficient transfer of goods and services through the region.”

Within the next several months, Johnson said, the unfinished section of highway from the Horsepen connector to Gilbert Creek will be completed by the WV Division of Highways, a nearly $55 million project that’s scheduled to be completed by the State’s Road’s to Prosperity bond issue.

In addition, with the recent passage of the Congressional infrastructure bill, discussions with coal operators, land owners, legislators and the WV Division of Highways have begun to plan for the construction of more sections of highway in southern WV as post mine land use projects.

Progress is not always immediately recognized

What began 10 years ago as a highly debated consolidation of four smaller Mingo County schools, ultimately resulted in the creation of Mingo Central High School. The school opened in August of 2011, which Johnson noted was concurrent with the opening of the King Coal Highway, and set the stage for new educational opportunities for Mingo County students.

Also within the past 10 years, she pointed out, feeder schools in each of the four consolidating communities were converted to K-8 educational facilities, marking significant capital expansions and improvements at all four locations.

“Emerging and consistent themes of the MCRA’s work for the past 10 years have been those of innovation, partnership, transition, and sustainability,” she said.

“At a time when we’ve been thrust into an economic transition, we’ve identified initiatives that are both innovative and sustainable as we reimagine Mingo County’s economic landscape, and we recognize that those initiatives will have greater success if they involve partners with a shared vision and passion for economic recovery.”


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