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Plans for Smart Jobs in Central Appalachia

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The community is buzzing about a free health clinic in the works for next year.  But even bigger plans are in the air around Williamson, West Virginia.  Plans for a future where more local residents might have employment in emerging industries like solar.  A future where the entire community’s health might improve in this part of Central Appalachia.

JOBS Project founder Eric Mathis explains, “The health clinic is kind of an incubator for a lot of the other sustainability projects. So, we’re linking that up with our local Farmers’ Market, as well as a local lunch walk program where people walk around to decrease the likelihood of diabetes emerging. And we’re also linking that up to some of the renewable energy training programs.”  The array of photovoltaic panels atop a downtown building will not only help keep the lights on at the Williamson Health and Wellness Clinic, but will serve as a symbol of local potential.

JOBS Project CEO Eric Mathis

The JOBS Project’s Smart Office, located at the nearby Mountaineer Hotel, is awaiting completion of a rooftop solar array, as well.  In Monroe County, a utility-scale communty wind farm is in the works.  On yet another project, research could help reforest areas laid bare by mountaintop removal mining while simultaneously creating renewable energy jobs.  The JOBS Project seeks to coordinate businesses, individuals and communities in ways that benefit everyone.  You won’t hear Mathis calling these projects “green” or “clean,” but he’s bold enough to converse with business leaders about “smart jobs.”

Typical Coal Preparation Plant

Mathis explains, “Willliamson is otherwise known as the heart of the billion-dollar coalfield.  I think it’s our patriotic duty as Americans to salute the American coal miner by beginning to develop renewable energy in the coalfields.”  He says even the coal industry traditionalists will listen when there’s a profit motive.  “When we approach the coal companies, we talk about it in the context of making money.”
Retraining local workers, many who previously worked in coal mining, has potential to help the community.  While traditional coal mining was the area’s major employer, the new method of removing more coal faster, otherwise known as MTR, leaves many without a job and no other skills.

Mathis has spent five years immersed in local culture, no longer viewed as the typical outsider.  He says he can relate to many residents, having grown up poor himself in rural North Carolina.  A graduate of Appalachian State University with a varied educational background, he brings a unique mix of organizational skills to reach out to the entire community.  “Once we kind of go over the hurdle of people associating us with a ‘radical environmentalist agenda’ they just realize that we’re here to help out the community via economic development, jobs creation, healthier communities and everything, we get 100% acceptance.”

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