Tourism in coal country: Digging into culture, ecotourism

Corning native Susan Hern leans on the shop counter at her gift and craft shop Anew View, as she speaks of her family's history in long-past local oil industry and the need for residents to put effort into rekindling their town, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, in Corning, Ohio. Communities across Appalachia are turning increasingly to the region's rich reserves in things other than coal, namely, history and rugged natural beauty, to frame a new tourist economy. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
A panorama showing the long-since disassembled oil derricks peppering the landscape of 1920's New Straitsville is displayed as Tom Craig, a 20-year resident and member of the New Straitsville History Group shows off models of derricks at their Museum, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, in New Straitsville, Ohio. Communities across Appalachia are turning increasingly to the region's rich reserves in things other than coal, namely, history and rugged natural beauty, to frame a new tourist economy. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
John Winnenberg, a local activist and proprietor of Winding Road Marketplace, a hub for selling the wares of local businesses, stands in his store, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, in Shawnee, Ohio. Communities across Appalachia are turning increasingly to the region's rich reserves in things other than coal, namely, history and rugged natural beauty, to frame a new tourist economy. Enjoying a drink, hike or overnight stay or in region infused with stories, sweat and strife is turning out to be a draw to aging baby boomers and millennials alike. Studies show these efforts are attracting tourists, new residents and a new sense of self-worth. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Sacramento native Larry Monson, center, stands in his new business, the My Little Bakery & Coffee Shop, after opening less than two weeks prior, an effort Monson describes as to "put one more brick into the foundation for a better town, to bring some life back," Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, in Corning, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Selina Nadeau, 22, an AmeriCorps member with with Ohio's Hill County Heritage Area group, right, handles a customer transaction at the Winding Road Marketplace, a hub for selling the wares of local businesses, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, in Shawnee, Ohio. Communities across Appalachia are turning increasingly to the region's rich reserves in things other than coal, namely, history and rugged natural beauty, to frame a new tourist economy. Enjoying a drink, hike or overnight stay or in region infused with stories, sweat and strife is turning out to be a draw to aging baby boomers and millennials alike. Studies show these efforts are attracting tourists, new residents and a new sense of self-worth. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Lumps of coal are sold as ornamental trinkets at the Winding Road Marketplace, a hub for selling the wares of local businesses, stands in his store, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, in Shawnee, Ohio. Communities across Appalachia are turning increasingly to the region's rich reserves in things other than coal, namely, history and rugged natural beauty, to frame a new tourist economy. Enjoying a drink, hike or overnight stay or in region infused with stories, sweat and strife is turning out to be a draw to aging baby boomers and millennials alike. Studies show these efforts are attracting tourists, new residents and a new sense of self-worth. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Corning native Susan Hern, center, hands a holiday plant to Malana Monson, a local bakery owner, at her gift and craft shop Anew View, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, in Corning, Ohio. Communities across Appalachia are turning increasingly to the region's rich reserves in things other than coal, namely, history and rugged natural beauty, to frame a new tourist economy. Enjoying a drink, hike or overnight stay or in region infused with stories, sweat and strife is turning out to be a draw to aging baby boomers and millennials alike. Studies show these efforts are attracting tourists, new residents and a new sense of self-worth. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Sacramento natives Larry Monson, right, and his with Malana embrace in their My Little Bakery & Coffee Shop opened less than two weeks prior, an effort Monson describes as to "put one more brick into the foundation for a better town, to bring some life back," Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, in Corning, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Images depicting long-since disassembled oil derricks peppering the landscape of 1920's New Straitsville is displayed at the New Straitsville History Group Museum, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, in New Straitsville, Ohio. Communities across Appalachia are turning increasingly to the region's rich reserves in things other than coal, namely, history and rugged natural beauty, to frame a new tourist economy. Enjoying a drink, hike or overnight stay or in region infused with stories, sweat and strife is turning out to be a draw to aging baby boomers and millennials alike. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Sally Sugar, 23, an Ohio Stream Restore Corps AmeriCorps member, left, tours Tecumseh Lake, a 13-acre artificial lake constructed in 1952 to serve as a recreation area for residents, alongside Selina Nadeau, 22, an AmeriCorps member with with Ohio's Hill County Heritage Area group, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, in Shawnee, Ohio. Communities across Appalachia are turning increasingly to the region's rich reserves in things other than coal, namely, history and rugged natural beauty, to frame a new tourist economy. Enjoying a drink, hike or overnight stay or in region infused with stories, sweat and strife is turning out to be a draw to aging baby boomers and millennials alike. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Rodney Embrey, an employee at nearby Buckingham coal mine, describes the process of renovating the building he and a business partner purchased to start an antiques dealership, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, in Corning, Ohio. Communities across Appalachia are turning increasingly to the region's rich reserves in things other than coal, namely, history and rugged natural beauty, to frame a new tourist economy. Enjoying a drink, hike or overnight stay or in region infused with stories, sweat and strife is turning out to be a draw to aging baby boomers and millennials alike. Studies show these efforts are attracting tourists, new residents and a new sense of self-worth. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Customers dine at My Little Bakery & Coffee Shop, opened less than two weeks prior by Sacremento transplants Larry and Malana Monson, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, in Corning, Ohio. Communities across Appalachia are turning increasingly to the region's rich reserves in things other than coal, namely, history and rugged natural beauty, to frame a new tourist economy. Enjoying a drink, hike or overnight stay or in region infused with stories, sweat and strife is turning out to be a draw to aging baby boomers and millennials alike. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Tom Craig, a 20-year resident and member of the New Straitsville History Group, right, takes two AmeriCorps members on a tour of the Robertson Cave, a tourist attraction that was once home to clandestine meetings for early labor union organizers in the late 1800s, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, in New Straitsville, Ohio. Communities across Appalachia are turning increasingly to the region's rich reserves in things other than coal, namely, history and rugged natural beauty, to frame a new tourist economy. Enjoying a drink, hike or overnight stay or in region infused with stories, sweat and strife is turning out to be a draw to aging baby boomers and millennials alike. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Framed collages showing the graduating classes of now-closed New Straitsville schools are displayed as Tom Craig, a 20-year resident and member of the New Straitsville History Group leads a tour at their Museum, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, in New Straitsville, Ohio. Communities across Appalachia are turning increasingly to the region's rich reserves in things other than coal, namely, history and rugged natural beauty, to frame a new tourist economy. Enjoying a drink, hike or overnight stay or in region infused with stories, sweat and strife is turning out to be a draw to aging baby boomers and millennials alike. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Tom Craig, a 20-year resident and member of the New Straitsville History Group holds a panorama photograph showing the 1923 congregation while standing in the United Methodist Church, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, in New Straitsville, Ohio. Communities across Appalachia are turning increasingly to the region's rich reserves in things other than coal, namely, history and rugged natural beauty, to frame a new tourist economy. Enjoying a drink, hike or overnight stay or in region infused with stories, sweat and strife is turning out to be a draw to aging baby boomers and millennials alike. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Tom Craig, a 20-year resident and member of the New Straitsville History Group stands among the recovered remains of the local barbershop, complete with original barber's chairs and mirrors, at their Museum, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, in New Straitsville, Ohio. Communities across Appalachia are turning increasingly to the region's rich reserves in things other than coal, namely, history and rugged natural beauty, to frame a new tourist economy. Enjoying a drink, hike or overnight stay or in region infused with stories, sweat and strife is turning out to be a draw to aging baby boomers and millennials alike. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Selina Nadeau, 22, an AmeriCorps member with with Ohio's Hill County Heritage Area group, left, and Sally Sugar, 23, of Columbus, an Ohio Stream Restore Corps AmeriCorps member, right, tour the historic Tecumseh Theater, built in 1908 as the "Red Man's Hall" and renamed in 1976 to honor a Shawnee Native American tribal leader and is now under renovation to serve the community, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, in Shawnee, Ohio. Communities across Appalachia are turning increasingly to the region's rich reserves in things other than coal, namely, history and rugged natural beauty, to frame a new tourist economy. Enjoying a drink, hike or overnight stay or in region infused with stories, sweat and strife is turning out to be a draw to aging baby boomers and millennials alike. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Tom Craig, a 20-year resident and member of the New Straitsville History Group, demonstrates the church organ, partially donated by steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, at the United Methodist Church where his wife plays the instrument, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, in New Straitsville, Ohio. Communities across Appalachia are turning increasingly to the region's rich reserves in things other than coal, namely, history and rugged natural beauty, to frame a new tourist economy. Enjoying a drink, hike or overnight stay or in region infused with stories, sweat and strife is turning out to be a draw to aging baby boomers and millennials alike. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Selina Nadeau, 22, an AmeriCorps member with with Ohio's Hill County Heritage Area group, tours the historic Tecumseh Theater, built in 1908 as the "Red Man's Hall" and renamed in 1976 to honor a Shawnee Native American tribal leader and is now under renovation to serve the community, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, in Shawnee, Ohio. Communities across Appalachia are turning increasingly to the region's rich reserves in things other than coal, namely, history and rugged natural beauty, to frame a new tourist economy. Enjoying a drink, hike or overnight stay or in region infused with stories, sweat and strife is turning out to be a draw to aging baby boomers and millennials alike. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Rodney Embrey, an employee at nearby Buckingham coal mine, walks into the building he and a business partner purchased to start an antiques dealership, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, in Corning, Ohio. Communities across Appalachia are turning increasingly to the region's rich reserves in things other than coal, namely, history and rugged natural beauty, to frame a new tourist economy. Enjoying a drink, hike or overnight stay or in region infused with stories, sweat and strife is turning out to be a draw to aging baby boomers and millennials alike. Studies show these efforts are attracting tourists, new residents and a new sense of self-worth. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

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.

AUTHENTIC STORIES

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.

What's fresh is the new energy among baby boomers and millennials alike, who seem to enjoy the Rust Belt chic of enjoying a drink or overnight stay in a place full of authentic stories built on sweat and strife.

In Nelsonville, Ohio, Sunday Creek Coal Co. was among dozens of companies that thrived in eastern Ohio during mining's heyday, 1850 to 1940. Vestiges of that era — opera houses, speakeasies, union halls, railroad depots — are being preserved and promoted for tours, lodging and quirky events like the re-enactment of a Prohibition rally.

"It's not creating tourism just for other people. We're going for ourselves as well," said Winnenberg.

ECOTOURISM

The Corbin, Kentucky-based Appalachian Wildlife Foundation is developing an ecology education site on Kentucky's first mountaintop removal coal mine.

"Capitalizing on the wildlife of the region for conservation, based on our work, turned into a tourist attraction," said board chairman Frank Allen.

A wildlife center rich with elk, deer, bear and more than 260 species of birds will open in 2019 while mining operations continue nearby. An economic impact study predicts the 19-square-mile tract of former mine land will attract 638,000 annual visitors, generate $124 million in annual spending by its fifth year and create 2,300 jobs.

"The mining has created phenomenal elk habitat. Elk are, by nature, prairie animals, and the grassland habitat that's created when the coal mines are restored is very conducive to the elk," Allen said. "It's kind of the ultimate irony: The 'evil' mountaintop removal process and, all of the sudden, it's created the ideal habitat for wildlife."

The Monday Creek Restoration Project in New Straitsville, Ohio, gave locals their first look at a clear-running stream in generations, according to project manager Nate Schlater.

"The stream where a lot of my work has been focused, Monday Creek, was a dead stream, declared possibly unrecoverable in 1994," he said. "Today, there's 36 species of fish living in the stream, it's nearing achieving EPA warm water habitat status. People are now fishing in the stream. My grandkids are catching fish where there's never been a fish in my lifetime."

CHANGING ECONOMIES AND MINDS

Coal country overwhelmingly supported President Donald Trump, who pledged to reverse coal's decline, but just 1,200 new mining jobs have been created across the region since January. That can't make up for the hemorrhage of the past: In Southwest Virginia, mining employment plunged 45 percent from 1990 to 2014.

Even those with good coal jobs sometimes feel they need backup plans. Rodney Embrey loves his job in communications at the Buckhingham mine in Corning, Ohio, but he's also started a lucrative side business with a friend selling antiques. Their store is in a building once slated for demolition as an eyesore. "It was a dry goods store when it opened up" in 1905, he said, an era he and others call "the boom."

The new economy appears to be attracting jobs, tourists and even new residents to the Virginia region that's furthest along in its efforts. One study there found that arts, entertainment, recreation and related fields added over 5,000 jobs between the year 2000 and 2014. The region's professional, scientific, education and health sectors also grew by double-digit percentages in 15 years, the study found, as millennials in tech and other location-flexible industries select the region for its down-home charm and outdoor recreation.

"We've lost many, many more jobs to coal losses than we've attracted," Christensen said. "But what we're also finding is that communities that have embraced the creative economy have seen an influx of 25- to 34-year-old college-educated people moving in. We can't say it's related, but there's a correlation."

He added that visitors often come in with a "stereotype of what they think they'll find. ... Nine times out of ten, they leave with a different perspective than what they brought."

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