Mining for tourists? A dubious economic savior in Appalachia – (Chattanooga Times Free Press – March 29, 2015)

Associated Press – SECO, Ky. (AP) – Mines built this company town. Could vines – the wine grapes growing on a former strip mine in the hills above – help to draw visitors here?

Jack and Sandra Looney sure hope so. Their Highland Winery – housed in the lovingly restored, mustard-yellow “company store” – pays tribute to coal-mining’s history here, as do their signature wines: Blood, Sweat and Tears.

“The Coal Miner’s Blood sells more than any of them,” Jack Looney says of the sweet red. He and his wife have converted the store’s second and third floors into a bed and breakfast. They’ve also bought and restored a couple dozen of the old coal company houses as rentals, and rooms fill up during their annual spring Miner’s Memorial Festival.

Seco, like so many Central Appalachian communities, owes its existence to coal – its very name an acronym for South East Coal Company. But as mining wanes, officials across the region are looking for something to replace the traditional jobs and revenues.

In some of the poorest, most remote counties, about the only alternative people can come up with is tourism – eco-, adventure, or, as with the Looneys, historical and cultural.There are mining museums, festivals, wilderness adventures. Sub-regions have been rechristened with alluring names like the Hatfield-McCoy Mountains or the PA Wilds.

Will it work? Proponents point to the region’s assets, its natural beauty, its distinctive mountain character – and characters (like the feuding Hatfields and McCoys). But others note the paradoxes: Environmental degradation alongside unspoiled areas, a history of poor education that for decades didn’t preclude high-paying jobs, an away-from-it-all feel partly caused by a lack of good roads and other infrastructure.

There’s a gap between desires and infrastructure in many areas hoping to develop tourism, says University of Tennessee researcher Tim Ezzell. “We have community colleges that will teach you to be an X-ray tech, but they don’t have culinary arts,” he said.

For all but a lucky few places with both assets and access, recent studies and spending data suggest, tourism may be a dubious savior.

“It’s kind of really odd that economic practitioners push tourism to be a propulsive industry when it has such low wages,” says Suzanne Gallaway, an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro

“It’s not a panacea,” adds tourism consultant Carole Morris. “It’s not going to be that cure-all.”

Appalachia covers 205,000 square miles, encompassing 420 counties in 13 states, from northeast Mississippi to southwest New York, according to the official definition offered by the Appalachian Regional Commission. West Virginia is the only state wholly included.

The region includes many cities and has a range of industries. But many areas in Central Appalachia are at an economic crossroads, as mining and logging give way to services jobs.

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