The evolving connections between research institutions like Virginia Tech and regional economic development organizations like the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority (VCEDA) are essential partnerships needed to make informed decision about the ever-changing economy due to their unique research abilities. VCEDA is an organization which helps bring more jobs to the Southwest Workforce Development Area or as the Spearhead region to others, through program grants for business and industry related inquiries.

Since the organization began in 1988, more than 300 projects equating to over $200 million dollars in funding and resulting in over 20,000 jobs, have entered the rural economy. It is no secret that the Southwest Virginia economy has historically been the center for agricultural and food related jobs, in fact, the graphic seen in this blog post outlines some of the data regarding the industry where each letter of VCEDA showcases an agriculture related fact. In addition, jobs in the non-renewable energy sector such as coal mining and natural gas drilling have also been a major industry in this economy. Today, these energy stocks are diminishing and new economic development opportunities in agriculture and other industries are being sought out to advance the region forward. As a part of this initiative, VCEDA partnered with Virginia Tech’s Office of Economic Development to be the facilitators in the formation of a strategic plan for the region’s economy pertaining to food production. The partnership between OED, VCEDA, SWCC, and members of the advisory committee resulted in seven strategies which included: forming an agricultural advisory group, enhance support for agriculture development, promote agricultural and financial education, help producers diversify, expand meat processing, develop support cooperatives, and lastly, re-imagine surface mine land and existing industrial sites for new food production opportunities.

The final recommendation sparked an interest with me as I had given prior thought about the surface mining sites that lay barren across the Central Appalachian landscape. When asked to work on this component of the plan, I immediately began connecting the dots between my background in geographic information systems (GIS) and natural resources to this new realm of economic development and community planning that I had just entered. Not only did I feel like I had come to the right place, but this project also expanded into the project that would go on to become my capstone project or thesis for my master’s degree which I will complete next Spring of 2019. This project will focus on which surface mining sites may be better for economic development related purposes such as solar farms, aquaponics facilities, greenhouses/nurseries, breweries, etc. and which sites may be better for ecological reclamation and restoration purposes by creating a GIS model of various data such as proximity to various parameters (roads, population, water/sewer connections, power lines, outdoor recreation, other tourism opportunities, etc.) as well as slope, soil properties, and other characteristics of the landscape and surrounding ecosystems.

It is no doubt that institutions like Virginia Tech play an important role in the processes pertaining to community planning and outreach for partners like the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority by providing insight on past and emerging workforce related trends by fostering healthy relationships between academia and industry. It is partnerships like the one with VCEDA that drive the Southwest Virginia region forward in such a way that one may assume that VCEDA actually stands for a “Variety of Connections Evolving & Demanding Attention.”

A year later, I am revisiting this idea for my master’s thesis where I analyze surface mining sites within Virginia’s coalfield region to determine which sites are better for economic development purposes and which are better for ecological restoration.

In doing this, I will create an interactive decision making tool to profile each site based on specific parameters to determine which are an asset for natural habitat or which are an asset for the economy. The tool is called “H.E.A.R.T.” which stands for Habitat & Economic Asset Rating Tool and it will be located on my web page at when it is completed next semester.

The existing environmental and societal conditions encompassing a site directly link to how the site should be handled by the communities, municipalities, and economic development agencies involved. For example, it might be best to restore the land to its natural state if it is not close to a populated area, but on the other hand, a site might be better for facilities pertaining to food and beverage processing, energy infrastructure, and healthcare.

The idea of using the lands to build a new economy amidst the decline of the coal industry has been gaining more attention over the past year as the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources proposed the RECLAIM Act. This bipartisan bill would direct $1 billion dollars from the Abandoned Mine Land fund over the next five years to restore abandoned lands to revitalize communities in the heart of Appalachia. Unfortunately, the bill was not fully funded and the Abandoned Mine Land Pilot Program currently only provides about 10% of that hopeful $1 billion with around $110 million annually.

House Rep. Morgan Griffith, of the 9th VA district that covers the coalfield region, an original sponsor of the RECLAIM Act, stated: “It’s Democrats and Republicans coming together to identify a way that we can be helpful, help the country, help make the environment better, help create jobs and help people who are skilled but want to stay living in the mountains and pursue something different as we move forward.”

Despite efforts in Congress and at the national level to revitalize the coalfields region, this economic and ecologic opportunity needs more recognition from the general public to make these innovative projects a part of the national agenda, not just as a regional goal. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics coal jobs continue to decline more every year.

However, change does not always happen at the top. By mapping and assessing former mining sites we move forward on new ways to utilize the resources the coalfields region has provided for so many years.