How an ex-coalmining town is turning to ecotourism to rebuild its economy

How an ex-coalmining town is turning to ecotourism to rebuild its economy

Eighty-five years ago, Bobbie Gullett was born in the heart of coal country. She grew up in Dante, Virginia, a bustling municipality of 6,000 with a hospital, a hotel, schools, a movie theater, a taxicab stand, a train line. She remembers living in a worker house owned by the Clinchfield Coal Company: Back then, Gullett recalls, while the supervisors lived up on the ridges, coalminers and their families lived in the hollows of the nearby mountain range.

Their squat houses spread along the winding streets of town, which sat in a bowl created by the bumpy, tree-crested hills. In spring and summer, mountain laurel bloomed in the forest and kudzu spread in patches, and in the winter, snow blanketed the town.

“You wouldn’t believe how pretty Dante used to be,” said Gullett, reminiscing at the Dante Coal Miners museum on a late January day.

Dante’s economy was largely built around coal, and the gains from extraction allowed families in town to prosper. “We lived in a bubble where coal was king, life was good, everybody had money,” added her friend Lou Wallace, whose family worked in railroading.

Now all of that is gone. As coal jobs have disappeared from Dante, other industries have not yet taken root. But Gullett and Wallace want to change that – by harnessing new sources of funding to transform Dante into a hub of ecotourism as well as a place where information economy workers can live and work remotely.

“Coal is not renewable,” said Wallace. “It’s come to the end of its way. We’ve come to a new generation, and we need to start thinking. We have to be OK with a building becoming something else, with change and renewal.”

Gullett and Wallace are part of a group called the Dante Community Association, which is working with other regional and national groups to remediate the town’s abandoned coalmines. The work isn’t just about revitalizing their local economy; it’s also about nurturing the environment around them, and bringing some of the natural beauty Gullett remembers so fondly back to the community.

“We feel like we’re doing all this as a pilot program,” said Wallace. “This can encourage other communities to say, wow, we can be forward thinking.”

This is an excerpt from an article by Emily Cataneo, originally published by The Guardian.

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