Regional Partnerships Powering
Economic Resilience in Coal Country

On June 7-9, 2023, 18 local and regional leaders from coal communities across the nation convened in the Southwest Virginia (SWVA) region for a peer-learning journey. This Coalition was launched through the Building Resilient Economies in Coal Communities (BRECC) Community of Practice initiative, supported by the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) and led by the National Association of Counties (NACo). This was the first of four peer-learning site visits planned for the Coalition over the next two years to provide a platform for coal community leaders to learn and share strategies for economic diversification, resilience, and revitalization. Will Payne, Director of InvestSWVA, is a Coalition member and served as host for this first interactive visit. 

"It’s an honor to host leaders representing coal communities from all around the country who are equally focused on diversifying their region’s economies. I’m proud that we could showcase what Southwest Virginia is getting right."
Will Payne
Director, InvestSWVA
Regional planning, partnerships, and collaborative action emerged as key themes for success in rural economic development and resilience.

The Southwest Virginia region is located in the Appalachian Mountains where the far southwest tip of Virginia meets Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, and North Carolina. The rural region has faced economic challenges due to the decline in the coal economy, coupled with declines in tobacco, textiles, and manufacturing. However, SWVA has embarked on a collaborative, regional approach to economic diversification which has sparked success and momentum across a variety of future-forward development projects that were showcased to the national cohort. 

Driving collaboration into action and implementing this regional vision in the SWVA coalfields are a collection of innovative entities, including: InvestSWVA, a regional public-private business attraction and marketing entity; LENOWISCO Planning District Commission (PDC), the region’s Economic Development District (EDD); and the Lonesome Pine Regional Industrial Facilities Authority(LP RIFA), a unique partnership created to pool resources and share development revenues across four counties and one city and administered by LENOWISCO PDC.   

Mineland redevelopment turns unusable liabilities into regional assets.

Reclamation and redevelopment of previously coal mined land has been a major strategy for the region and the peer-exchange showcased project sites in Wise County and the City of Norton, each in different phases of development and targeting different focus areas of investment.  

New Energy Technology

  • The first solar energy development on former coal mined land in Virginia is powering a data center at the Lonesome Pine Regional Business & Technology Park. Attraction of data centers is also major pursuit for development in SWVA. 
  • Energy DELTA Lab, the first-of-its-kind energy technology testbed in the region, will provide former mineland as laboratories to promote energy innovation and drive research towards commercialization and deployment of energy projects, such as hydrogen, geothermal, solar, pumped-storage hydro, and small modular nuclear reactors. 
  • LENOWISCO PDC commissioned a 2023 feasibility study that determined SWVA has capabilities to be a ‘competitive hosting ground’ for small modular nuclear energy reactors identifying seven potential development sites. The study also identified SMRs and data centers as ‘synergistic industries,’ as SMRs need a power customer and data centers need clean, reliable energy. SMR development in SWVA was also cited in Virginia Governor Glenn Younkin’s 2022 statewide energy plan.

Business Park Development

  • The aptly named Project Intersection is centered around developing and repurposing a 200-acre former surface coal mine located at a highly visible and heavily trafficked intersection of four-lane highways in Norton, Va. Through site acquisition, removal of a highwall mining feature, and infrastructure development, this previously unusable property is transitioning into a premier business and industrial park campus. EarthLink, a leading high-speed internet provider, will serve as the park’s first tenant and will construct a 30,000-square-foot facility to ‘reshore’ its customer service operations back to the U.S., creating nearly 300 jobs. 

Agriculture/Specialty Grains 

  • Through Project Thoroughbred, InvestSWVA and LPRIFA are working with small, family farms to grow malting quality barley and highlight the region’s potential to tap into the growing craft beverage industry. Breweries in Virginia have already piloted a variety of beers utilizing SWVA-grown grains.  The redevelopment of an abandoned coal loadout facility into a grain processing, storage, and distribution terminal will serve as a regional catalyst in this sector.

Essential funding partners in making these projects come to life have been the U.S. EDA; the Office of Surface Mining’s Abandoned Mine Land Economic Revitalization (AMLER) program; state funding partners such as Virginia Energy, GOVirginia, and the Virginia Tobacco Commission; and myriad other federal, local, and private partner funds. 

The Coalition also learned about more ongoing regional economic diversification efforts including workforce partnerships with community colleges, telework opportunities, downtown revitalization projects, and tourism initiatives.  Tourism initiatives were on full display at the event opening reception at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, while collaborative efforts across 19 counties and five EDDs in advancing tourism and the creative and recreation economy were featured in a panel discussion. 

"EDA supported the BRECC initiative to facilitate learning and sharing across coal communities who are working to diversify their economies and shape the future of their regions. Our recent trip to Southwest Virginia reinforced the importance of that work. I’m thrilled that the Coalition members who participated embraced the opportunity to build relationships, share strategies, and reaffirm our shared commitments to the communities we serve."
Victoria Brown
Communities of Practice Coordinator, U.S. Economic Development Administration
EDDs play an essential role in fostering regional collaboration and building resilient economies in coal communities.
Jenna Draper
Regional Economic Development Coordinator, Six County Association of Governments (Utah)

“A community’s economic issues don’t always stop at the city or county border. As regional EDD staff, we are focused on issues that can be addressed or solved on a regional basis, ensuring a ‘rising tide raises all ships’. At Six County AOG, we continue to push for strategic regional thinking, with long-term objectives that will become legacy projects and secure the future of the region. 

Closures (coal mining and plants) are a regional issue when you take into account employees traveling across our counties for work, but also the supporting businesses (i.e trucking, machinists) located across the region. Collaborating with other coal communities from across the nation helps generate ideas that can be adapted to our region.

The #1 takeaway from the SWVA visit is the creation of the Regional Industrial Facilities Authority (RIFA) and how that can be implemented in our region. Learning that projects in the region can be governed under the same board instead of having silo projects has made me want to pivot the way we are structuring projects, such as a large, agricultural processing industrial park we are developing.” 

Hon. Steve Henry
Judge Executive,Webster County, Kentucky
Board Chair, Green River Area Development District 

“I was so impressed with SWVA’s efforts. They have demonstrated what working together can accomplish. They engaged an ‘outside the box’ approach to enhancing what they had to work with, such as embracing former mining areas as a benefit rather than liability and inspiring approach to agriculture and specialty crops. One statement I am continually reminded of is ‘We didn’t wait on Richmond (state government) to give us permission.’ They worked with each other to develop what was best for them. 

Green River ADD is the unifying force in building a resilient economy for our region. I feel honored to bring back these resources not only to Webster County, but to Western Kentucky. BRECC provides a unique opportunity to collaborate and counsel with similar communities… it’s an outstanding network for me to tap into.”

Duane Miller 
Executive Director, LENOWISCO Planning District Commission (Virginia)

Duane Miller said the biggest takeaway he had from the event was how impressed others were by the widespread regional cooperation and partnerships that are taking place in Southwest Virginia. 

“We had people from all over the U.S. come to visit our region. It was a great opportunity for us to learn from them and I think they learned a lot from us, too.” 

“Bring energy, work hard, and like each other.”

Mr. Miller offered to the group this mantra in referencing tips of the trade in building regional relationships and buy-in among local governments and other key partners. As noted in response from both the visiting cohort and SWVA hosts alike, in a land of historic Friday Night football rivals, this seemingly simple statement has a powerful impact.  

Scotty Wampler
Executive Director, Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission (Virginia) 

Scotty Wampler joined the Coalition visit in SWVA to share the EDD’s plans for economic resilience through infrastructure and asset-based development efforts. Cumberland Plateau PDC is the neighboring EDD to LENOWISCO in the SWVA coalfields. As an EDD, Cumberland Plateau PDC has made economic diversification a foundational pillar of its work. Conjuring up images of inspirational signs in sports locker rooms, Mr. Wampler summarized that his guiding ‘north star’ is quality-of-life for the region, while also being committed to ensuring small businesses and entrepreneurs are able to plug into new opportunities in asset-based economic development investments. 

“If we don’t have quality-of-life, then we don’t have economic development.”

To learn more about this site visit in SWVA, please reference the below media stories:

The NADO Research Foundation (NADO RF) and NACo have been long-time partners in supporting coal-reliant communities across the country through training, research, and peer exchange. Currently, NADO RF serves on the BRECC Advisory Council as part of its Economic Development District Community of Practice (EDD CoP), a multi-year effort to build capacity across the national network of EDDs. 

To learn more about BRECC and future programming, such as its virtual webinar series, visit the Building Resilient Economies in Coal Communities page of NACo’s website.

The EDD CoP is funded through an award from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce (ED22HDQ3070106). The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations above are those of the participants, trainers, and authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Economic Development Administration or the U.S. Department of Commerce.


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Joe McKinney serves as Executive Director of the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO). Headquartered in Washington DC, NADO provides advocacy, education, research, and training for the nation’s 500+ regional planning and development organizations.

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