Winning isn’t everything, but without it, life can quickly become sad. Take for instance the coal communities throughout our region. In a brief and bitter span of time we have watched large numbers of middle-class people lose their jobs, houses, cars and worst of all their hope as coal operations have closed at a steady pace. Worse yet, no one is forecasting an improvement in this downward trend for coal. As a group, what should we do now?
Before I proffer a solution, I feel it would be best for us to understand what has brought us to this place, economically speaking. The coal industry as a whole finds itself in the midst of a perfect storm. It isn’t just one thing that has crippled coal, but a myriad of market forces working against us. Environmental regulations, thinner coal seams, an expanding natural gas industry, global steel production fluctuations and competition are all factors creating downward pressure on our industry. In the past we fought back one or two of these, but today all of them are working against our progress. So, don’t put all the blame on Obama; he is only one of the many factors that have collectively devastated our industry.
So, what are we who live in a post-coal Appalachia to do now? Some are relocating; others taking early retirement, and some are simply giving up and holding out their hand for a government check. For me, none of these options has much appeal. I love my community and the friends and family who live here; and I don’t want to leave. Fortunately, I’m still employed. But in this climate, no one knows how long any coal company will last. So, I’ve been pondering options for how we can salvage our way of life in these rugged hills if all the coal jobs go away, completely. I don’t know that I have found any single answer, but of this I am certain; if we do not fight to win, we will surely lose.
The reality television show, The Profit, is one of my favorites. In it, Marcus Lemonis, a successful businessman seeks out struggling businesses in an effort to help them become profitable. Of course, along the way, he makes money too by obtaining some level of ownership in the failing enterprises. His method of evaluating a business is what he calls the three “Ps”, People, Process and Product. Once he finds the “P” which is weakest or missing, he sets about to lead the owners toward repairing that part of the broken business, generally setting it on a path of recovery.
In our region the Product is all but gone. But, the good news is we still have high quality People with a good work ethic (Process) for getting things done. Our most abundant resource is quality people and from among us we can find marketable products to produce. Perhaps it is handcrafted, custom furniture? Or maybe a bow hunting guide service or other outdoor adventure business? Perhaps manufacturing firearms or knives would do well? The opportunities are as varied as our imagination if we work together. If we do nothing, we will fade into oblivion. But, if we apply our minds, hands and hearts to the task, I know we can find ways to keep our communities vibrant and alive.
Our forefathers who first settled these mountains didn’t come here looking for someone else to fix their problems and neither should we. Lets keep our mountaineer spirit alive and fight to win in coal country.
Gary Lee Corns