Tourism in coal country: Digging into culture, ecotourism

Tourism in coal country: Digging into culture, ecotourism

PERRY COUNTY, Ohio — Two-thirds of Appalachia’s coal industry jobs have disappeared since the 1990s. Now the region is hoping tourism will help rebuild its economy by tapping into history and its rugged natural beauty.

A Shawnee, Ohio, event re-enacted a Prohibition rally outside the real-life former speakeasy. In Corbin, Kentucky, they’re constructing an elk-viewing area on a former mountaintop mine. Virginia’s Crooked Road traces country music history. Ohio’s Winding Road takes visitors back to the birth of the U.S. labour movement.

“We’d like to promote Appalachia as an exotic, interesting place, not the Godforsaken place that we usually get in the national press,” said Todd Christensen, executive director of the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation.

AUTHENTIC STORIES

For Ohio activist John Winnenberg, the rebirth goes deeper. As eastern Ohio has endured boom-and-bust cycles — of timber, coal, clay and, lately, oil-and-gas extraction — residents have internalized a sense of futility and abandonment that’s hard to shake, he says. That mentality could fade if locals succeed in building their own tourism-based economy. “We’ve been owned before,” said Winnenberg, director of The Winding Road initiative centred in historic Shawnee. “We don’t want to be owned again.”

The promise of a new future for coal country is not new. Billions of dollars have been spent closing, reclaiming, reforesting and redeveloping abandoned mine land since the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act passed 40 years ago.

What’s fresh is the new energy among baby boomers and millennials alike, who seem to enjoy the Rust Belt chic of enjoying a drink or overnight stay in a place full of authentic stories built on sweat and strife.

In Nelsonville, Ohio, Sunday Creek Coal Co. was among dozens of companies that thrived in eastern Ohio during mining’s heyday, 1850 to 1940. Vestiges of that era — opera houses, speakeasies, union halls, railroad depots — are being preserved and promoted for tours, lodging and quirky events like the re-enactment of a Prohibition rally.

“It’s not creating tourism just for other people. We’re going for ourselves as well,” said Winnenberg.

ECOTOURISM

The Corbin, Kentucky-based Appalachian Wildlife Foundation is developing an ecology education site on Kentucky’s first mountaintop removal coal mine.

“Capitalizing on the wildlife of the region for conservation, based on our work, turned into a tourist attraction,” said board chairman Frank Allen.

A wildlife centre rich with elk, deer, bear and more than 260 species of birds will open in 2019 while mining operations continue nearby. An economic impact study predicts the 19-square-mile tract of former mine land will attract 638,000 annual visitors, generate $124 million in annual spending by its fifth year and create 2,300 jobs.

“The mining has created phenomenal elk habitat. Elk are, by nature, prairie animals, and the grassland habitat that’s created when the coal mines are restored is very conducive to the elk,” Allen said. “It’s kind of the ultimate irony: The ‘evil’ mountaintop removal process and, all of the sudden, it’s created the ideal habitat for wildlife.”

The Monday Creek Restoration Project in New Straitsville, Ohio, gave locals their first look at a clear-running stream in generations, according to project manager Nate Schlater.

“The stream where a lot of my work has been focused, Monday Creek, was a dead stream, declared possibly unrecoverable in 1994,” he said. “Today, there’s 36 species of fish living in the stream, it’s nearing achieving EPA warm water habitat status. People are now fishing in the stream. My grandkids are catching fish where there’s never been a fish in my lifetime.”

CHANGING ECONOMIES AND MINDS

Coal country overwhelmingly supported President Donald Trump, who pledged to reverse coal’s decline, but just 1,200 new mining jobs have been created across the region since January. That can’t make up for the hemorrhage of the past: In Southwest Virginia, mining employment plunged 45 per cent from 1990 to 2014.

Even those with good coal jobs sometimes feel they need backup plans. Rodney Embrey loves his job in communications at the Buckhingham mine in Corning, Ohio, but he’s also started a lucrative side business with a friend selling antiques. Their store is in a building once slated for demolition as an eyesore. “It was a dry goods store when it opened up” in 1905, he said, an era he and others call “the boom.”

The new economy appears to be attracting jobs, tourists and even new residents to the Virginia region that’s furthest along in its efforts. One study there found that arts, entertainment, recreation and related fields added over 5,000 jobs between the year 2000 and 2014. The region’s professional, scientific, education and health sectors also grew by double-digit percentages in 15 years, the study found, as millennials in tech and other location-flexible industries select the region for its down-home charm and outdoor recreation.

“We’ve lost many, many more jobs to coal losses than we’ve attracted,” Christensen said. “But what we’re also finding is that communities that have embraced the creative economy have seen an influx of 25- to 34-year-old college-educated people moving in. We can’t say it’s related, but there’s a correlation.”

He added that visitors often come in with a “stereotype of what they think they’ll find. … Nine times out of ten, they leave with a different perspective than what they brought.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The future of Westerner Park continues to be plagued by many unknowns, including when city council will make a decision about financing its operations. (File photo by Advocate staff).
Red Deer city council delays making decision on Westerner Park financing

It will mean missing the next opportunity to apply for a provincial loan

Nineteen-year-old Amanda enjoys a ride during a visit to Spirit’s Respite Ranch near Stettler. photo submitted
Busy days at Spirit’s Respite Ranch near Stettler

The ranch, which launched operations last summer, provides support through animal interaction

Red Deer Mayor Tara Veer at the announcement that the city will be getting a drug treatment court Thursday. Jason Luan, associate minister of mental health and addictions, looks on.
Photo by PAUL COWLEY/Advocate staff
Veer concerned about rising COVID-19 cases in Red Deer

The City of Red Deer is reminding citizens to protect themselves against… Continue reading

Rode
Volunteering played major role in RDC awards

Under normal circumstances, the RDC Red Deer Bottling Athlete of the Year… Continue reading

Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said on Thursday that the province has seen its first case of the B.1.617 variant. (Photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Red Deer nears record number of active COVID-19 cases

Alberta reports 1,857 new cases of COVID-19, 1,326 new variants

Curtis Labelle (second from left) and his band are planning a cross-Canada tour in 2022. Meanwhile, Labelle is continuing to host his weekly livestreamed talk show, Chattin 88. (Contributed photo).
Red Deer rock pianist takes on a talk show role

Curtis Labelle’s Chattin 88 gets views from around the globe

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady passes under pressure from Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Alex Okafor during the second half of the NFL Super Bowl 55 football game, Sunday, Feb. 7, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. Lawmakers are debating legislation to legalize single-event betting as a bill reaches final reading in the House of Commons. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Mark Humphrey
Bill on single-game sports betting on cusp of passing — but not for first time

Bill on single-game sports betting on cusp of passing — but not for first time

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland holds a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
More supply needed to ease housing price crunch, but always more to do, Freeland says

More supply needed to ease housing price crunch, but always more to do, Freeland says

Letisha Reimer is shown in a photo, part of a memorial to her outside Abbotsford Senior Secondary School in Abbotsford, B.C., Monday, Nov.7, 2016. A B.C. Supreme Court judge is expected to deliver her decision today over whether a man who stabbed two high school students is not criminally responsible because he had a mental disorder. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geordon Omand
Man who stabbed two students in Abbotsford, B.C., found criminally responsible

Man who stabbed two students in Abbotsford, B.C., found criminally responsible

Light from the sunset hits the skyline in Toronto, Ont., on Tuesday October 31, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch
Hate crimes jumped 51 per cent in part spurred by pandemic, Toronto police report

Hate crimes jumped 51 per cent in part spurred by pandemic, Toronto police report

A passenger from Air India flight 187 from New Delhi arrives at Pearson Airport in Toronto on Wednesday April 21, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Canada to suspend flights from India and Pakistan for 30 days

Canada to suspend flights from India and Pakistan for 30 days

Inter Pipeline's Heartland Petrochemical Complex in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. is shown in this undated handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Inter Pipeline *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Hostile takeover target Inter Pipeline reports 60% of Heartland plant is contracted

Hostile takeover target Inter Pipeline reports 60% of Heartland plant is contracted

Smoke pours from the stacks at the Portlands Energy Centre in Toronto on Thursday January 15, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Risk experts say climate change to take big chunk of Canadian economy by 2050

Risk experts say climate change to take big chunk of Canadian economy by 2050

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and United States President Joe Biden smile as they say farewell following a virtual joint statement in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau pledges to cut emissions by 40 to 45 per cent by 2030, short of U.S. goal

Trudeau pledges to cut emissions by 40 to 45 per cent by 2030, short of U.S. goal

Most Read