Company store turned bed and breakfast: Appalachia mines for tourists
Appalachian communities that owe their existence to coal are turning to tourism to replace traditional jobs and revenues. But some argue natural beauty and mountain character are at odds with the area's history of environmental degradation and poverty.
Seco, Ky. — Mines built this company town. Could vines — the wine grapes growing on a former strip mine in the hills above — help to draw visitors here?
Jack and Sandra Looney sure hope so.
Their Highland Winery — housed in the lovingly restored, mustard-yellow "company store" — pays tribute to coal-mining's history here, as do their signature wines: Blood, Sweat, and Tears.
"The Coal Miner's Blood sells more than any of them," Jack Looney says of the sweet red.
He and his wife have converted the store's second and third floors into a bed and breakfast. They've also bought and restored a couple dozen of the old coal company houses as rentals, and rooms fill up during their annual spring Miner's Memorial Festival.
Seco, like so many Central Appalachian communities, owes its existence to coal — its very name an acronym for South East Coal Company. But as mining wanes, officials across the region are looking for something to replace the traditional jobs and revenues.
In some of the poorest, most remote counties, about the only alternative people can come up with is tourism — eco-, adventure, or, as with the Looneys, historical and cultural. There are mining museums, festivals, wilderness adventures. Sub-regions have been rechristened with alluring names like the Hatfield-McCoy Mountains or the PA Wilds.
Will it work? Proponents point to the region's assets, its natural beauty, its distinctive mountain character — and characters (like the feuding Hatfields and McCoys). But others note the paradoxes: Environmental degradation alongside unspoiled areas, a history of poor education that for decades didn't preclude high-paying jobs, an away-from-it-all feel partly caused by a lack of good roads and other infrastructure.
There's a gap between desires and infrastructure in many areas hoping to develop tourism, says University of Tennessee researcher Tim Ezzell. "We have community colleges that will teach you to be an X-ray tech, but they don't have culinary arts," he said.
For all but a lucky few places with both assets and access, recent studies and spending data suggest, tourism may be a dubious savior.
"It's kind of really odd that economic practitioners push tourism to be a propulsive industry when it has such low wages," says Suzanne Gallaway, an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro
"It's not a panacea," adds tourism consultant Carole Morris. "It's not going to be that cure-all."
Appalachia covers 205,000 square miles, encompassing 420 counties in 13 states, from northeast Mississippi to southwest New York, according to the official definition offered by the Appalachian Regional Commission. West Virginia is the only state wholly included.
The region includes many cities and has a range of industries. But many areas in Central Appalachia are at an economic crossroads, as mining and logging give way to services jobs.
Sociologist Rebecca Scott, author of a book on mountaintop removal in her native West Virginia, says, "It's important to really point out the situation of the state being caught between the condition of being an extraction economy, a sacrifice zone, and yet having most of its sort of long-term successes in tourism being around nature-based tourism. I think that it's a really big contradiction."
Gallaway, who did her doctoral thesis on tourism development in the region, found that while tourism and hospitality accounted for 16 percent of all jobs in the region, those sectors produced just 7 percent of the wages.
"I think tourism can always be part of a diverse economy," says Gallaway, who teaches at UNCG's Bryan School for Sustainable Tourism and Hospitality. "But I wouldn't put all of my eggs in that basket, no matter who you are."
A look at some tourism initiatives around the region shows challenges as well as successes.
A 2012 report compiled for the Mountain State's Division of Tourism found that spending and hospitality employment have been slow to grow in many counties.
A glaring exception was Harrison County, where direct tourism spending has more than doubled since 2004 — to $142 million — and hospitality employment has increased by more than 50 percent. But those numbers can be deceiving.
Many rooms in the area's hotels are being occupied by workers drilling in the nearby Marcellus shale formation, as coal has been replaced by hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas, says county commission president Ron Watson.
According to the economic report, tourism-related jobs in the Hatfield-McCoy Mountains — the marketing label for a cluster of coal-producing counties — actually dropped from 1,400 to 1,300 from 2004 to 2012.
Another area that includes the New River Gorge and the Greenbrier resort shed 700 tourism-related jobs during the period, the report shows.
Morris, who was head of cultural tourism for the state of Kentucky before opening her own consultancy, says there's a fine line between squashing initiative and encouraging pipe dreams.
"I have rarely been in a place where tourism was impossible," says Morris. "There's always something interesting, something in the history of a community that brings people."
Still, in places where tourism seemed less viable, she saw her job as "managing those expectations."
A few years ago, Morris shared a $100,000 Appalachian Regional Commission grant to consult with several "distressed" counties. One of her clients was Forest County, Pennsylvania.
For generations, the county, dominated by the Allegheny National Forest, was a popular vacation destination for blue-collar workers, earning it the nickname "Pittsburgh's playground." But as manufacturing waned and tastes changed, Morris found, locals were left with a "tired product."
Working with the consultants, a local planning group suggested a rebranding: Forest County would become a "gateway" to the Lumber Heritage Region and the PA Wilds. The trick, Morris and team wrote in their action plan, was for the county to stay "true to its heritage of 'the place to get away from it all,' and respect its rural roots while moving into the new marketplace for tourism." The latter meant things as simple as adding Wi-Fi and non-smoking rooms, and encouraging more businesses to take credit and debit cards.
"People do want to get away from it all," the team wrote, "but visitors want to stay connected if necessary."
As environmentalists fight to protect areas not disturbed by mining, some longtime residents are trying to make the most of what the coal industry has left behind.
In its day, Lynch was the largest coal company town in the world, built by industrialist J.P. Morgan to provide coking coal for his U.S. Steel Corp. At its height in the 1940s, more than 10,000 people lived in the neat company houses that lined Kentucky 160 and snaked up the surrounding hillsides.
Today, Lynch's population hovers around 730. But Portal 31, the mine that helped fuel America's postwar industrial renaissance, has been given new life.
Passing through a concrete archway topped by the words "SAFETY THE FIRST CONSIDERATION," visitors ride a miniature train several hundred feet into the hillside as a guide and animated exhibits illustrate mining's history here. Several original company buildings have been restored. The ticket office is located in Lamp House No. 2, where miners gathered to fill and light their carbide headlamps before beginning their shift. In 2010, the regional commission awarded a $240,000 grant to restore the old Lynch firehouse.
Down the road in Benham, built to service International Harvester's coal mines, the former company store now houses the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum, including items from the personal collection of "Coal Miner's Daughter" Loretta Lynn. The 1926 brick school across the road is an inn that doubles as a training ground for a community college's hospitality management program.
Museum Curator Phyllis Sizemore says the exhibition mine saw a record number of visitors in July: 1,033. That's not a lot, but Sizemore, who grew up in a nearby coal camp, says the value of some things can't be measured in dollars spent or names in a guest book.
"I don't look to tourism exactly as a savior," says Sizemore, 62, the granddaughter, niece, sister and mother of miners. "I look at education as a savior ... We are doing both."
Doing tourism in an out-of-the-way place, especially one that's been blasted and carved up, is "an uphill battle," says Gallaway.
No one knows that better than Jack and Sandra Looney, whose winery lies in Letcher County, once a top coal producer. Since 1988, the county has lost about 80 percent of its mining jobs.
When they bought it, the old company store was little more than a shell. "So we had to rebuild all the inside, put the roof back on it," says Jack Looney, whose father shopped there before breaking his back in a cave-in.
Then there was another big hurdle for the winery: Letcher County had been "dry" since the 1940s. So the Looneys researched state law, petitioned for a precinct vote and won the right to produce and sell alcohol.
Today, rows of vines line the old strip mine at the head of No. 2 Hollow. French merlot plants have been grafted onto native "possum grape" roots to help them adapt to local soil.
"I have found out they grow great here on these mountaintop removals," says Looney, who makes his living building gas stations. "It's real hot and sunny during the daytime, and windy at the evening time."
The Looneys' only advertising is a billboard. Most of their trade comes from folks who'd moved away — and some who stop by just to see family names in an old mining company ledger unearthed during renovations.
More than a decade after renovations were completed, the winery and inn still have trouble turning a profit. Looney says his construction business loaned the operation about $30,000 last year.
The couple started the venture as a way to keep their daughter, Jean, who was studying food science at the University of Kentucky, in the mountains. She eventually started her own vineyard with her husband in Lexington.
Jack Looney still hasn't given up on Jean coming back to run things in Seco. If not, then there are always the grandkids.
"Maybe somebody will before I get too old to quit fooling with it."