AP – PERRY COUNTY, OHIO – Two-thirds of Appalachia’s coal industry jobs have disappeared since the 1990s. Now the region is hoping tourism will help rebuild its economy by tapping into history and its rugged natural beauty.
A Shawnee, Ohio, event re-enacted a Prohibition rally outside the real-life former speakeasy. In Corbin, Kentucky, they’re constructing an elk-viewing area on a former mountaintop mine. Virginia’s Crooked Road traces country music history. Ohio’s Winding Road takes visitors back to the birth of the U.S. labor movement.
“We’d like to promote Appalachia as an exotic, interesting place, not the Godforsaken place that we usually get in the national press,” said Todd Christensen, executive director of the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation.
For Ohio activist John Winnenberg, the rebirth goes deeper. As eastern Ohio has endured boom-and-bust cycles — of timber, coal, clay and, lately, oil-and-gas extraction — residents have internalized a sense of futility and abandonment that’s hard to shake, he says.
That mentality could fade if locals succeed in building their own tourism-based economy. “We’ve been owned before,” said Winnenberg, director of The Winding Road initiative centered in historic Shawnee. “We don’t want to be owned again.”
The promise of a new future for coal country is not new. Billions of dollars have been spent closing, reclaiming, reforesting and redeveloping abandoned mine land since the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act passed 40 years ago.