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West Virginia Coal Towns Reimagine Themselves Around The Great Outdoors


The pandemic recession is forcing some parts of the U.S. to reimagine their economies. That's the case in Appalachia, where leaders are trying to move away from coal and instead thinking about building an economy around another natural resource - the great outdoors. West Virginia Public Broadcasting's Brittany Patterson has more.


BRITTANY PATTERSON, BYLINE: For more than 250 years, the mineral synonymous with West Virginia - coal - has been mined from the rugged mountains that surround this 88-mile-long river aptly called the Coal River. It was once listed among the most at-risk in the country, largely due to pollution from the coal industry. But today?




PATTERSON: On a recent sunny weekend, Elizabeth Hill and her family are among dozens of visitors who strapped on life jackets and prepared to hit the water. Although they live just 30 minutes away, it was their first time visiting the Coal River as a family.

ELIZABETH HILL: We're really just searching for activities that we can do that keep us away from crowds. So that was our main impetus in coming out to try this.

PATTERSON: That's something Bill Currey says he's been hearing a lot. He's the founder of the Coal River Group, a nonprofit dedicated to cleaning up the watershed.

BILL CURREY: They have 20 locations where you can get in the river. Every one of them was packed.

PATTERSON: Recreating outside - where the virus can disperse more easily - while not free of all risks, is certainly safer than many other activities enjoyed pre-COVID.

CURREY: You know, on a kayak, you got a 6-foot paddle. That limits who can get very close to each other.

PATTERSON: West Virginia is within 500 miles of about 60% of the U.S. population, a population that largely doesn't want to fly to go on vacation right now. Outdoor recreation can be a significant economic driver, says Jack Morgan with the National Association of Counties. He's been working with coal communities here and out West trying to make that same transition. But the pandemic shutdown has also brought major challenges.

JACK MORGAN: This economic shock comes right at the top of and on the back of their existing economic distress from the coal decline and right in the midst of this economic retooling.

PATTERSON: Fred Ramey is the city manager of Norton, Va., a small community that borders eastern Kentucky. The city has invested in campgrounds and hiking and mountain bike trails to lure new visitors. Right now he says the trails are bustling with people eager for a safe break from quarantine life. But along the brick-lined downtown, where shops were forced to close for months and now must limit capacity, it's a different story.

FRED RAMEY: We've been very concerned about the economic impact to those businesses.

PATTERSON: Back on the Coal River, Bill Currey says his restoration nonprofit is hurting, too. Fundraising is down. Still, he's heartened by the new faces he's seeing on the water, and he wonders, with everyone working at home anyway, whether some people may take a fresh look at rural communities like his more permanently.

CURREY: More and more people will move here so they don't have to live in a big city. And they can make $100,000 a year, sit in their desk, you know, in Rupert, W.Va., as opposed to downtown Manhattan.

PATTERSON: But he says if you aren't ready to move just yet, you could always start by visiting and spending a day on the river.

For NPR News, I'm Brittany Patterson in Tornado, W.Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brittany Patterson