Mayor D.R. Carter is shown outside the old Lee Theater in downtown Pennington Gap. David Grace photo.
Editor's note: This is the third story in a three-part series about the struggles of the small, Southwest Virginia town.
Even though Pennington Gap has a host of problems — no jobs, high poverty level, drug abuse — there are still people who refuse to give up on the town they call home.
One of those people sits in the highest elected office in town, the mayor’s office.
“Our town has its problems,” said Mayor D.R. Carter. “But it’s nothing we can’t overcome.”
Since Carter became mayor in 2010, he has tried to make significant improvements in Pennington Gap.
During his first term, Carter has been a big advocate in collecting delinquent taxes. A printed version of those who owe delinquent taxes hangs behind his desk, and when talking about the taxes the town has collected, sometimes he turns his chair to the side and taps it to illustrate his point.
The mayor and town council formed an Industrial Development Authority in 2012. The purpose of forming the board was to bring businesses into Pennington Gap.
Already, the IDA may have brought an O’Reilly Auto Parts franchise to the region. Food City has also bought a piece of land inside Pennington Gap to possibly expand or replace their already existing grocery store.
Some local business owners believe the town council’s heart is in the right place.
“We have a great town council,” said the owner of First Virginia Pawn and Gold, Renee Mullins-Russell. “They’re really active. They’re trying to bring things in as far as Pennington Gap. I can’t say for the IDA, but our Pennington council is really trying to bring things in. I mean they really are.”
Carter has been making improvements around the town as well. He has installed welcome signs at four of the five entrances into town. He has also changed the town logo to promote one of the unique features about Pennington Gap, Stoneface Rock.
Stoneface Rock is a natural rock formation on the side of a mountain in Pennington Gap. Looking at the rock from the side, the curves and crevices resemble a human face. Stoneface Rock now adorns the carpet at town hall, business cards for most town employees and the town’s welcome signs.
But Leeman Field may be the crown jewel for Mayor Carter.
“I’m really proud of some of the improvements,” Carter said.
Leeman Field plays host to the annual Lee County Fair. It contains exhibition barns, little league fields, basketball courts and a large community pool.
Carter had the tennis courts re-lined, installed basketball courts for the younger children, had new swing sets put in and installed mile markers along the walking trail.
There are a few other major improvements taking place around town. The fire station has been recently repainted and the town purchased a new fire engine and dump truck recently. Some of the improvements were paid for with grant money.
There are some other, bigger projects taking place in downtown Pennington Gap. Construction is almost complete on the new community center on Morgan Avenue. The center is far enough along that a few parties have been hosted inside. Once complete it will host weddings, birthday parties and pretty much any event where people need a large space. A few county commission meetings have already been held inside.
Maybe the biggest project taking place in town is the complete restoration of the old Lee Theater. Work has been going on since 2005 and is scheduled to be completed sometime this year.
The theater closed down in the mid-70s and was bought by a private business owner. The building was used as a storage building for auto parts for a long time. The town eventually bought the building back and decided to restore the old theater. The renovation is costing about $1.5 million dollars, according to Fred Woliver, the clerk in charge of overseeing the theater.
One thing the town of Pennington Gap needs that most everybody agrees on is jobs.
“We need to make sure we are creating a pro-business environment,” Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., said. “And we need to make sure we are creating that environment in our community.”
Griffith said Ohio State University may have figured out a way to burn coal without producing carbon emissions and OSU would be testing the method on a larger scale. He said if it works, coal could “come back in a big way.”
Griffith also said he has been actively trying to bring manufacturing jobs to Southwest Virginia. He believes manufacturing jobs would be more ideal than high-tech jobs because high-tech jobs could move from community to community depending on what is being offered. Griffith likes high-tech jobs, but he said he thinks that if a company invests in building in the community, it is more likely to stay.
He said he tried to bring Beretta jobs to the area when the company was looking to move from Maryland. The company is coming to Virginia but in a different area.
The congressman urges people to get involved with trying to bring jobs to the area.
“I’m doing everything I can in Washington,” Griffith said. “I encourage people to write the senators and say coal is important and so are jobs. ...We need jobs back in Southwest Virginia.”
Through everything — job loss, high poverty rate, drugs and corruption — the people still laugh, and smiles come easily to residents in Pennington.
“I love Pennington Gap,” Carter said. “My heart and soul is in Pennington.”