Look Closer: Appalachia’s New Economy is Emerging

The organization I founded in 2010, Coalfield Development, has been a leader in modeling what a new, more sustainable, and more fair Appalachian economy can look like. As the coal industry continues to shrink, figuring this out is more important than ever. Often, I’m asked, “what can replace coal in Appalachia?” But that’s the wrong question.

It’s the wrong question because many of Appalachia’s problems connect back to the fact that we’ve been overly reliant on one extractive industry for far too long. What we need is a diverse economy with all different kinds of people creating lots of different opportunities in many different ways. Nature teaches us the most vibrant and resilient eco-systems are the most diverse ones (think rainforest, coral reef, deciduous woodlands, etc.) So, too, with economies.


Entrepreneurs are uniquely valuable in the effort to create a diverse economy. They are a rare but crucially important economic species. Entrepreneurs lead the way in innovating adaptations, creatively networking, and generating new configurations of existing resources which can achieve different and better outcomes. Entrepreneurs look at what many see as problems and, with fresh eyes, find the solutions hidden within those problems. They have a radical kind of faith in problem solving, believing that the solutions are, in fact, there. And they figure out how to use what’s already available to get where they want to go, rather than complaining about or waiting for outside resources. Appalachian entrepreneurs are my heroes. The more, the better. And the more different and unique and even eccentric the entrepreneurs, the better.


Despite the tremendous economic pain many in the coalfields are experiencing, there is an amazing entrepreneurial movement taking hold in Appalachia.


Eight years ago, Coalfield Development partnered with a West Virginia startup called Solar Holler to start the first solar installation company in southern West Virginia. This enterprise now employees more than 40 people and has doubled its sales year after year. Think of that! A solar company growing and thriving deep in the heart of coal country. Around that same time, we began partnering with farmers and agrepreneurs across the state to launch a collective called Turnrow Appalachia. Turnrow works with more than 100 independent farmers to get their products to larger markets. And they just had a record year! Our t-shirt company, SustainU, designs and prints shirts made from 100% recycled content. Selling to music festivals and sporting events, this company has made sales in all lower 48 states. There are thousands more examples across our region. Look closer, past the negative headlines, and you’ll be just as inspired as I am.


As a region, we must do all we can support this entrepreneurial movement because it’s more clear than ever the coal industry won’t be back. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports coal production for 2019 hit its lowest level in 42 years. That was before COVID-19, which led to even steeper drop-offs. This is why, tragically, the layoffs continue; this is why we’ve seen Peabody, Blackhawk, and Murray lay off thousands in recent years. So the evidence is clear: coal is no longer king of American energy. This is a scary truth for Appalachia to confront. Livelihoods are at stake. But even if the industry did come back, would we really be better off?


Imagine coal boomed in West Virginia again. Imagine coal returned to its 2005 levels when just over 25,000 were employed in our state by the industry (compared to about 12,000 today) and we produced roughly 150 million tons per year. Or even 1980 when more than 50,000 were employed by coal. The train cars would be full again and more miners would go back to work . This would obviously be good for our state, right? Poverty would decrease and people would lead happier and healthier lives, right? Wrong. Because even when coal boomed, our state had some of the worst poverty in North America. With all the politics that surround the coal issue, that fact gets lost. When coal boomed, we still lagged the nation in educational attainment and good health. When coal boomed we still had low entrepreneurial startup rates and low labor-force participation. So it’s time for a new economy that works better than the extractive economy of old.


But how can we rebuild an entire economy, you might ask? Where do we even start? With all the bad headlines about our region, it’s easy to get discouraged. But look closer. Green shoots of innovation are spreading and growing. The rebuilding of our economy starts one entrepreneur at a time.


Brandon Dennison is the founder and of Coalfield Development and an Entrepreneur in Residence at the iCenter. Dennison’s work as a social entrepreneur has been recognized by national and international social entrepreneurship organizations including Ashoka, World Bank, and DRK. In 2019, he was awarded the prestigious Heinz Award for Employment and Economy.


Interested in learning more about Coalfield Development and social entrepreneurship? Join us on Thursday, February 18th at 1pm during Entrepreneurship Week as social entrepreneur Brandon Dennison shares his perspective on why social entrepreneurship is such an important strategy for the advancement of the Appalachian region. Click here for more information on how to register for this free webinar.


You can also book a coaching  session with Brandon Dennison:

Available: Mondays 1 pm – 3 pm

Book a Free 30 minute session by emailing  icenter@marshall.edu

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