A West VA Town’s Community-Sponsored Rebirth

The little town of Williamson, WV is getting some great press these days, and deservedly so. Known as “the heart of the billion-dollar coalfield,” Williamson is proud of its coal heritage but is also actively preparing for what’s next. Sustainable Williamson is an initiative that has brought together the numerous community health, development and workforce training projects happening in the town. They’ve put together a fantastic video about their work, which you can – and should – watch at their website.

Recently, the Charleston Gazette ran a lengthy story about Williamson. It’s an inspiring story, and the kind of thing we need more of throughout central Appalachia. And it began with people talking to each other:

All those people – and others with their own dreams — started comparing notes. Sometimes they sat around the town’s little coffeehouse and talked. Sometimes they talked at meetings or on the street. They began to see they were working on pieces of the same picture.
That was three years ago. “We saw we were all working on improving our quality of life and the local people’s health, and we shouldn’t just be looking at one little piece of the puzzle, like a campground or a 5K or a farmers market,” McCormick said. “Our project became more about the way all these smaller projects are related.”
They saw that a health center would bring the city millions of dollars and lots of jobs. The city could help start the regular 5K run/walks Hatfield wanted. A farmers’ market, community gardens and recreation park would make the city more attractive for economic development. The Diabetes Coalition could help get the kids moving. A solar energy company could train people for new professions.
All those things could help lower the awful health statistics.
“We realized that the only way we can deal with our situation effectively is to work together,” Beckett said. “And we recognized that health, quality of life, and economic development issues are inseparable. Once we started looking at it like that, we started getting things done.”
And the list of things Sustainable Williamson has done and is doing is lengthy. The Charleston Gazette published a list, highlights include:
  • The Redevelopment Authority broke ground on a recreation/lodging complex on the Hatfield-McCoy trail that will generate dollars through cabins, RV camping, and biking/hiking trails.
  • The schools and Diabetes Coalition created running/walking programs in all middle schools. Each eighth-grader got a pedometer for a 10,000 steps-a-day competition. They held their own 5K. “We aim to spread it to all the schools,” Keathley said.
  • The group is constructing a “smart office” on Main Street, which is slated to be a sustainable technology training and demonstration center for the coalfields.
  • A community orchard is producing pick-your-own grapes and apples on two acres of an abandoned strip mine outside town.
  • All school cooks are making healthier meals from scratch. Last year, they got training with the help of the state Office of Child Nutrition.

This is just a sample of the work that Sustainable Williamson is doing – and it’s work that could happen in any of our struggling Appalachian communities. Let’s hope that Williamson is just the beginning.