Mingo County and the Tug Valley saw both cause for celebration and cause for anxiety in 2019.
From the realm of politics to entertainment and beyond, change was the word which will come to represent 2019 in the history books for the community.
With the new year upon us, here are some of the stories that made an impact in the past year and will continue to impact the community for years to come:
Rapid 2019 tourism growth spurs county economy, poses issues for CVBs
Tourism efforts in Mingo County increased to a new level in 2019 while at the same time the four municipal Convention and Visitor Bureaus have seen many changes.
Once again this year, Gilbert’s National Trailfest experienced continued growth and offered several new attractions during its four-day event in October. One of the changes made at the 2019 National Trailfest was the use of armbands which were sold to festival goers attending the concert and mud pit activities.
According to the town’s CVB Executive Director Victoria Surber, the armband sales were to offset the cost of bringing in more well-known performer for the event’s main concert. In addition to allowing access to the concert and mud pit, the armbands gave attendees unlimited access to two new additions to the festival – a climbing wall and zip line ride – in addition to other activities.
The annual National Trailfest remained the county’s largest tourism initiative in 2019.
The overarching popularity of the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System, upon which was the beginnings of Trailfest, reaches throughout central and southern Mingo County and continues to make significant economic impacts on the region.
Last year, SPORTS Outfitters an ATV campground located in the Chattaroy/Borderland area continued expansion with the completion of new cabins. The company, which had plans to build a small general store on the property, purchased a full-service convenience store at Victory Lane which had previously been shut down. The store, SPORTS Stop, is less than a mile from the campground and gave SPORTS Outfitter to also have gas pumps, a deli, lottery sales, a full beverage center and a souvenir shop.
Twin Hollows Resort and Campground in Gilbert developed a new, larger RV campground. In addition, Twin Hollows, which has a small restaurant with outdoor seating, began the construction of a new much larger restaurant on one of the resort’s higher-level lots. Owners of Twin Hollow are hoping the new, restaurant, which will feature a full menu and bar with floor-to-ceiling views of the surrounding mountaintops, will become a dining destination in Mingo County for the general public.
The City of Williamson began embracing ATVs and the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System more in 2019 than ever before. Wes Wilson became the executive director of the Tug Valley Area CVB and the Tug Valley Chamber of Commerce in the latter part of 2018 and set the opening the of city to ATV tourism as one of his primary goals. During 2019, his vision was implemented.
“It is nice to be able to sit in the Coal House and hear the rumble of machines coming down Second Avenue,” Wilson said. “People come in here from all over the country and they bring money with them to spend in our lodging facilities, restaurants, gas stations and many other local businesses.”
The Tug Valley CVB also spearheaded a new spring ATV festival – Dirt Days – last April. The inaugural Dirt Days was a two-day event that featured trail riding experiences as well has a street festival and mud pit. Plans are currently underway for the 2020 installment of the event.
Adventure tourism such as trail riding has been popular for years in the area especially in towns like Matewan that has become a Mecca for ATV riders for years. Now, river trails are becoming popular throughout Mingo County.
For the past two years, water enthusiasts have been trying to establish the Tug Fork River as a designated West Virginia Water Trail. In 2019, those efforts continued and with both the city of Williamson and the Mingo County Commission winning grants for development projects along the river. In addition, the number of events held on the river increase including a summer series of kayak races sponsored by the Kermit Volunteer Fire Department as a fundraising effort.
Tourism efforts did increase last year for the county, however, 2019 posed several struggles on the business and management side of the tourism industry.
In the summer, the county commission finally recognized the Delbarton CVB and began making payments to the organization from the county’s hotel motel tax. However, a new administration in the Delbarton Town Council question the legitimacy of the CVB and was refused to act as a pass-through agency for funds being send to the CVB this included the tax dividends and money for its executive director from the Workforce West Virginia.
Finally, in what he called “an act of good faith and cooperation” the town’s new mayor did begin sending the funds to the CVB. The funding did not help the organization although and in the fall it laid off its executive director.
The increased growth in tourism also affected the Tug Valley Area CVB in Williamson. The organization shared the cost of a full-time executive director with the Tug Valley Chamber of Commerce. Both organizations experienced rapid growth under the direction of Wilson. In the fall, he resigned from both organizations stating that one person could no longer do both jobs.
Following his resignation, the CVB decided to break its partnership with the Chamber and hire its first-ever full-time director. The organization conducted a search for a new director and received numerous applications among which was one from Wilson. He was rehired and officially began his new duties as of Jan. 2.
The Town of Gilbert, which was the most impacted by the new hotel-motel tax distribution system, filed a writ of mandamus against Mingo County Sheriff James Smith. The writ claims he had not been diligently performing his job as the county’s tax collect and seeks an order by the court for him to increase efforts in that regard.
Under the new tax distribution system, the county is giving half of the county hotel-motel taxes to the new county tourism committee which was formed in April 2019 with the other half being split equally between all recognized CVBs in the county. Previously, the first half was used by the county for tourism-related projects of any type and the second half was spit among the Gilbert and Williamson CVBs based on a territorial system which became too complicated once Delbarton and Matewan CVBs were added to the mix.
WMH seeks financial reorganization in 2019
The Williamson Memorial Hospital celebrated 100 years of service to the Tug Valley area, however, in 2019, that celebration was marred by financial struggles that resulted in a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition.
As part of the October 2019 filing, a WARN letter was sent to all 157 employees of the hospital notifying them of the action and that the hospital could potentially be shuttered in December. The hospital did gain protection by the bankruptcy court and is still open for business. However, there was one reduction in services which closed two hospital-managed physician’s clinics and the hospital’s intensive care unit. That move resulted in the loss of 35 jobs.
“That has been the only staff reduction we have had. We are currently outside the WARN period and are operating normally.” said Gene Preston, WHM chief executive director. “We’re open for business. We still have the issues that got us here but we are working on them. We are optimistic about everything.”
We are still under local ownership and are making progress.”
The bankruptcy petition indicated the hospital owes 50 to 99 creditors an amount ranging between $1 million and $10 million. The document also lists the hospitals total assets within that same monetary range as well.
The largest creditor the hospital has according to court records is to Community Healthcare Systems of Franklin, Tenn. CHS is the company from which Mingo Health Partners purchased the hospital. The amount of that debt is $651,124. CHS is followed by Ohio Valley Physicians, a group which provides emergency room doctors for the hospital, in the amount of $468,054.
Two MCRA projects near completion at the end of 2019
This past year saw one Mingo County Redevelopment Authority economic diversification project nearly completed and an infrastructure addendum to another also being production ready by early 2020.
The economic diversification project being nearly production ready is the aquaponics facility near Kermit. During the final MCRA meeting of 2019, Executive Director Leasha Johnson said the facility at First Burning Creek, which is being called the Blue Acre Aquaponics Center, lacks only the completion of a few punch list items to be production ready.
She said a marketing firm in Charleston, 84 Agency, assisted the MCRA with the development of a facility name and a branding campaign, which she pointed out will effectively reach the audience of facility’s products.
Johnson said the branding campaign “will additionally authenticate the value of the project…the goals and values of innovation, food access, community inclusion, economic diversification and education.”
Once the facility is operational, Johnson said an accompanying focus will also be placed on the facility having an educational component where both school groups and growers can come to learn more about the aquaponics concept.
In addition to being an immediate employment and training source for Mingo and nearby counties, once operational the facility and training center will provide a local and regional market for fresh greens and tilapia (around $12,000 and $6,000 in monthly sales, respectively), as well as represent a model that can be implemented in other coalfield communities, Johnson said.
The $3.6 million project, first announced just prior to Christmas in 2016, derived its funding through the 2016 Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) Pilot Program and the DEP.
A ribbon-cutting and dedication ceremony has been tentatively scheduled for later this month.
The multi-million infrastructure addendum project at the Appalachian Regional Airport is also expected to be completed early this year.
Shortly after the Appalachian Regional Airport took on full-time operational duties earlier this year, a groundbreaking was held onsite in June for a long-awaited utilities addition project at the Varney location.
The announced $2.6 million infrastructure project entailed a 1,600 ft. waterline extension, a sewage holding facility, a 125 gpm booster station, radio telemetry and a water storage tank with a nearly 500,000 gallon storage capacity.
The project was funded, in part, by a federal grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, with local matching funds having been provided by the MCRA and the Mingo County Commission. Work on the project began within a week of the groundbreaking ceremony.
The start of construction came nearly seven years after the airport was declared opened in 2012. In the interim, the old Mingo County Airport in Williamson had remained open until the Mingo County Airport Authority officially ceased operations there on May 31.
Although both phases of the infrastructure work fell a little short of their original completion dates in December, Johnson said each should also be finished and operational by early this year.
“Christmas miracle” comes packaged in Bipartisan American Miners Act
After decades of uncertainty and anxiety over whether their healthcare and pensions would disappear altogether in 2020, nearly 100,000 miners nationwide received what was referred to as a “Christmas miracle” late last month when both retirement benefits were secured by the Bipartisan American Miners Act.
Accompanied by UMWA President Cecil Roberts, on Dec. 29 U.S. Senator Joe Manchin brought his “Promise Kept Tour” to Matewan and officially announced the passage and signing of the legislation to about 300 former and current miners and their families, which he said perpetually guarantees the retirement benefits.
Manchin said the legislation came after nearly a decade of attempts to secure the benefits, which first began in 2013 with the Care Act.
Following the failure of this initiative, in 2015 Manchin said he and other senators, including fellow West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito, introduced the Miners Protection Act which in 2017 ultimately secured lifetime benefits for approximately 23,000 miners, widows and children.
Manchin pointed out that this still left tens of thousands of other miners and families in imminent danger of permanently losing their retirement benefits altogether unless legislation could be passed before the end of the decade to include all those still unprotected.
Manchin referred to it as the Promise Kept Tour, he said, because receiving permanent benefits was a promise made to the nation’s coal miners in 1946 and that the recent legislation’s passage was validation that the promise had been kept.
Blackhawk Mining closes a number of local operations, furloughs workers
A major coal producer announced late last year it was closing a number of its local underground mining operations as well as two of its preparation plants, resulting in the furloughing of 342 employees in Mingo and Logan counties.
In October Kentucky-based Blackhawk Mining L.L.C. officials issued Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notices (WARN) to employees at its Washington Underground Mine, the Muddy Bridge Underground Mine, the Buffalo Underground Mine and the Franco Preparation Plant and Loadout in Logan County.
WARN notifications were also issued to employees at the Mingo 1 Preparation Plant and the Mingo 2 (Scaggs) Loadout in Mingo County. The company also planned to idle operations at the No. 8 Underground Mine, which is a contract mine also located in Mingo County.
The announcement of the West Virginia closures followed the closure of bankrupt Cambrian Coal L.L.C., which in October furloughed an estimated 200 or more of its employees from the company’s Premier Elkhorn subsidiary at Myra.
That closure was a result of the Sept. 27 sale of Premier Elkhorn to a West Virginia company—Pristine Clean Energy, L.L.C.
In an attempt to shore up the company’s finances, in July Blackhawk filed voluntary petitions for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code in the United States Bankruptcy Court in Delaware.
The company subsequently announced in a press release that it had reached an agreement with more than 90 percent of its lenders on the terms of a financial restructuring.
Aside from the West Virginia operations, Blackhawk is also the owner of the Hazard-based Blue Diamond Coal Company, which has several active and inactive operations in Perry and surrounding Kentucky counties.
The permanent workforce reductions resulting from the closures were scheduled for December.
Municipal election creates turmoil in Delbarton
The Town of Delbarton saw many changes in 2019 following its June 2019 municipal election including a new mayor and the resignation of a councilman.
The election, which saw write-in candidate Elmer Ray Spence defeat 22-year incumbent Mayor John Preece, was finalized with canvassing of the ballots the week following. While some of the numbers changed slightly after 11 provisional votes were tabulated, the results did not.
Spence won the race over Preece by a slim margin of six votes. As the provisional votes -- all of which were determined valid -- were counted, Spence gained an additional six votes. Preece’s earned an additional five votes. The official total for the mayor’s race was Spence, 75, and Preece, 68 – a finalized result with only a seven vote difference.
The town council race was also very close with the initial results showing Joe Crum losing his seat on the council by only two votes. Once the election was finalized, it was a three-vote difference that gave the victory to Albert Totten.
The official and finalized votes for council members are (as their names appeared on the ballot): Totten, 64; Glen Dale Canada, 106, Robert Hunt, 100, Mark Sizemore, 69, Ralph Maynard, 111; and Crum, 61.
Hunt was the only non-incumbent candidate in that race. Maynard had the highest number of votes in this election cycle. Conversely, during the previous election, he had the lowest number of votes to become a council member.
Town Recorder Rebecca Fouch, who ran unopposed, gained another five votes for a total of 95.
Elaine Tuckwiller, elections specialist with the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office, was in attendance during the canvass and observed the proceedings.
When the council met for its swearing-in ceremony and reorganization meeting on July 1, 2019, Councilman Mark Sizemore did not attend. Spence said earlier that day Sizemore hand delivered his resignation from the council.
“After much thought and prayer, I have decided not to be sworn in for the upcoming term as councilman,” Mark Sizemore stated in his three sentence resignation letter to Mayor Elmer Ray Spence. “After 29 years of service to the town of Delbarton, I feel it is time to step aside from these responsibilities and spend more time with my wife and family. Best wishes to you and this administration.”
Member of the council appeared dismayed by Sizemore’s resignation.
“I wished he had stayed,” said Councilman Albert Totten, who served alongside Sizemore on the council for several years. “He has a lot of knowledge we could use, but I understand where he’s coming from. He was here almost every day and put in a lot of time and never got paid anything for it.”
Newly elected councilman Robert Hunt also expressed his disappointment, but added, “I had hoped that everyone would at least have given us an opportunity to work together before leaving.”
At the same time, the council also accepted the resignations of both its town clerk and sewer plant manager.
Rachel Chambers-Bowen was selected by the council to replace Sizemore.