Friday, December 06, 2019

Grundy, Va., is an example of how hard it is to revive a coal town, and perhaps other places in the industrial heartland

Downtown Grundy, Va. (New York Times photo by Julia Rendleman)
A former coal town in southwest Virginia has been struggling to reinvent itself, but despite millions in taxpayer money spent on development and attracting alternatives to coal for 20 years, not much seems to be helping, Eduardo Porter reports for The New York Times

State and local officials have tried a host of initiatives: they fostered the Appalachian School of Law in the 1990s and the Appalachian College of Pharmacy in 2003. They moved most of downtown uphill to make it less susceptible to flooding from the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River, which cost about $170 million in state and federal money, Porter reports.

"Coal is still the most prominent business, employing one in six workers in the county and accounting for one-third of its total wages. But it can no longer support such living standards," Porter reports, noting that Grundy has lost about 1,000, or half, of its coal jobs since 2012. "The income of Buchanan County’s residents has fallen to about two-thirds of the national average. And about 40 percent of that comes from federal transfers like Social Security." Meanwhile, the county's population has dropped from about 35,000 in the 1970s to under 22,000 in 2019, and today's residents are older and poorer than average.

"Grundy is hardly unique. It is one of many victims of globalization, technology and other economic dislocations that have wreaked havoc with small-town America," Porter writes. "For years, most economists argued that rather than spend millions in pursuit of a new economic engine for such places, it would make more sense to help residents seek opportunities elsewhere. But the proliferation of towns like Grundy across what used to be the nation’s industrial heartland — stymied by joblessness, awash in opioids and frustration — has prompted a new sense of alarm."

Porter notes that former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers said at a recent conference: 'There is probably no issue more important for the political economy of the next 15 years, not just in the United States but around the world, than what happens in the areas that feel rightly that they are falling behind and increasingly left apart."

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