By Natascha Elbech

While the United States has made considerable strides towards renewable energy, local economies dependent on fossil fuel production have left many communities struggling to adapt to the new clean energy industry. Coal mining and manufacturing have been central to economic development in West Virginia for centuries, but today, the industry produces 60% of what it did ten years ago and has staggering poverty and unemployment rates. In light of widespread economic downturn, West Virginia has begun to address its need to imagine a future beyond coal.

Despite recent trends in coal production that have left the Appalachian coal region in decline, organizations like the Coalfield Development Corporation are fostering resilience and rebuilding regional communities by supporting economic diversification, education and vocational job training to boost employment. Founder and CEO, Brandon Dennison, has transformed entire communities with his vision of reclaiming the economic prosperity of the Appalachian Region in the wake of ongoing coal industry decline.

Based in Wayne, West Virginia, Coalfield Development Corp. addresses the impact of the coal industry’s decline by supporting a family of five social enterprises that work in mine-land reclamation, green-collar construction, skilled craftsmanship, solar installation, and sustainable agriculture. Each enterprise has its own operational and revenue model, but is unified by its innovative 33-6-3 model that assigns a weekly schedule of 33 hours of paid labor towards community development projects; six hours of community college courses for an Applied Science degree; and three hours of life-skills mentorship, including parenting, financial management, and successful goal-setting. Through local Social Enterprise and Economic Diversification (SEED) partnerships, Coalfield employs its 33-6-3 model towards holistic community enrichment, such as affordable housing, farm share services, and creative and artistic expression. After two years of program enrollment, unemployed youth and former strip miners graduate with a community college education, four technical certifications, financial stability, and newfound hope for the future.

However, Coalfield’s mission of economic empowerment and community revitalization cannot be realized alone. With funding and operational support from state and federal resources like the Appalachia Regional Commission (ARC) and the US Department of Health and Service’s Community Economic Development Program, long-term sustainable and economic development can continue to be promoted throughout West Virginia. Within the next couple of years, Coalfield hopes to increase its financial endowment from the DHHS and expand its outreach to coal-impacted communities nationwide.

Since 2011, the Coalfield Development Corporation has granted over 250 professional certifications, redeveloped over 175,000 square feet of dilapidated property, and generated over $10 million in new investments in southern West Virginia. In a region dominated by a legacy of coal mining and manufacturing dependence, Brandon Dennison and his organization have paved way for previously homeless and cyclically unemployed individuals to lead new lives by championing education, job training, mentorship and support through social enterprise. Over the coming decades, the climate change narrative will continue to have a transformative impact on energy production and consumption in the US and therefore, reinforces the ongoing importance of generating new opportunities in the industry.