WILLIAMSON, W.Va. (AP) — Inside a 1920s-era warehouse in the heart of a once-bustling coalfields hub, Brandon Blankenship saws through 8-foot boards pulled up from the building's floor, looking each one up and down for "a face that's not splintered — smooth with no breaks — and an intact tongue and groove." Portions that pass muster wind up in neat stacks for reuse by the crew remodeling the warehouse into office space, or for sale to builders looking to add a rustic touch to homes and restaurants.
The building crew from the nonprofit Coalfield Development Corp. is part of a broad effort to tackle a legacy of the coal industry's boom-and-bust nature in many Appalachian communities: empty or unkempt buildings. They have become eyesores in otherwise scenic towns and reminders that coal's best days are long gone, and leaders know that these structures need to find new life or be gone as well before the communities can attract new employers and residents.
Earlier this year, West Virginia University began a project to help rehabbers navigate the legal web surrounding older properties. Last year marked the launch of the statewide BAD buildings project — which helps towns with brownfield, abandoned or dilapidated properties — and the state's largest city, Charleston, became among the latest to crack down on owners of vacant properties.
Anti-blight programs have sprung up around Appalachia, but West Virginia's approaches are innovative and more widespread than many of its neighbors, experts say.
The need is also more acute in the Mountain State than elsewhere, according to the 2013 legislation that created a state land bank to take over ailing commercial properties that are beyond local governments' capacity: "Due to topography, the state has somewhat limited amounts of developable land," and "promoting the productive reuse ... will maximize this valuable resource."
The focus goes beyond brownfields — which are generally polluted commercial or industrial sites — to include empty or dilapidated office buildings, houses and stores. The aim is typically to preserve older buildings rather than tear them down.
While big cities have fought blight for years, rural areas have lagged in creating systematic approaches, said Allan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress. Cities faced a wave of abandoned buildings in the 1970s, and Mallach said significant efforts to address those problems tend to remain city-based rather than statewide.
"Small towns, villages, counties tend to have much less capacity to grapple with these issues than large cities," Mallach said.
Yet small towns' needs have also been growing, says Katherine Garvey, who leads a land use clinic at West Virginia University's College of Law that was started in 2012. Unlike most law clinics that help the poor with court issues, Garvey's was set up specifically to help municipalities and nonprofits with land transactions, planning and ordinances. The clinic started a vacant buildings project this year.
"As we're discussing these issues with communities, dilapidated buildings are always at the top of the list," she said, noting that attorneys for small towns are often generalists without specialized expertise in thorny issues such as properties that pass to heirs out of state.
The clinic works closely with the BAD Buildings program, which helps towns gather data on dilapidated buildings and plan for redevelopment or improved upkeep.
There's no statewide tally for abandoned and dilapidated buildings, but program manager Luke Elser said it's common for small or mid-sized towns to have hundreds. Fairmont counted more than 300 vacant or dilapidated buildings in 9 square miles in the town of about 19,000 people.
In Williamson, family doctor Dino Beckett hired Coalfield Development to fix flooring problems and create space for a business incubator in the former warehouse.
Beckett, who was raised in Williamson, bought several adjacent buildings in 2011 from the operator of a gym that was on the verge of closing several years after it opened. Before the gym, the buildings were empty for a number of years after a hardware company moved out.
The population of surrounding Mingo County has dropped from nearly 50,000 in 1950 to about 26,000 as coal jobs dwindled.
"People have been having to move out of their homes and leave because they are shutting down the mines," said Blankenship, the recent high school graduate working at the circular saw.
Coalfield Development also plans to remodel a vacant public school in Fort Gay as housing and community space, and it recently used a low-interest loan to buy a Huntington building slated for demolition. A $350,000 grant from Artplace America will help them turn the former factory into a community arts, woodworking and retail facility.
Relying on grants for just over half its $2.5 million annual budget and getting the rest from construction contracts and other business, Coalfield Development aims to create much-needed jobs as part of its mission. Crew members at several sites earn as much as $12 an hour and take community college classes, earning an associate's degree in two years.
Graduates have gone on to jobs in construction, cabinet-making and grocery logistics, executive director Brandon Dennison said.
"It becomes like a learning lab," Dennison said. "When they're hanging drywall, it's 'Drywall 101.'"