WISE — A crumbling mine highwall along U.S. Route 23 in Norton is moving closer to becoming an economic development asset.

Southwest Virginia, state and federal officials met Friday to announce a $1.8 million federal grant to help turn the highwall and surrounding surface mined land into the planned Project Intersection regional industrial-commercial site.

Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy Deputy Director Butch Lambert joined members of the Lonesome Pine Regional Industrial Facilities Authority and Ninth District Congressman Morgan Griffith at the Inn at Wise to announce the $1.783 million Abandoned Mine Lands Pilot Program grant.

Friday’s announcement marks the second AML grant for the 200-acre Project Intersection development at the northeast junction of U.S. 23 and U.S. Highway 58 in Norton.

Lambert said the Pilot Program helps Southwest Virginia and other regions with large areas of abandoned mine lands and declining economies start to turn those sites into economic assets.

“We need to entice people to stay in the area and to bring new people in,” Lambert said.

Friday’s grant follows a $3.5 million Pilot Program grant awarded in 2019 to Norton’s Industrial Development Authority for removal of the highwall visible from U.S. 23 and development of the first site pad for the project.

“That highwall has been on our radar for a long time,” Lambert said. “We never had the funding with traditional abandoned mine land funding to do anything about it before. It’s a dangerous eyesore to Southwest Virginia, and we’re glad to finally get rid of it.”

The highway has suffered some debris falls in recent years, and large boulders surround much of its base.

LENOWISCO Planning District Commission Executive Director Duane Miller said negotiations on bids for the highwall removal portion of phase 1 could be completed in about two months. Kentucky Utilities/Old Dominion Power has almost finished replacing a power line running across U.S. 23 from the top of the highwall.

Miller said the project aims for four primary sites ready for marketing, with utilities, broadband service and improved access to U.S. 23 and U.S. 58.

The project also would benefit the Regional Industrial Facilities Authority’s five members — Wise, Lee, Scott and Dickenson counties and Norton — with employment opportunities within a 40-mile radius, Miller said.

“To our regional partners, working together we can achieve great things,” Norton Mayor Joe Fawbush said.

Lambert said the latest funding for phase 2 will cover grading, access road improvement and utilities for a second site pad. That pad would be able to handle a 100,000-square-foot industrial or commercial building.

While the AML Pilot Program has supplied $10 million in 2019 for DMME to help fund reclamation and economic development projects, Lambert said that Southwest Virginia still has more than $350 million in reclamation projects needing work.

Griffith called Project Intersection an “orchard” for economic development opportunities in the region.

“It’s about planting those trees to bear fruit in the future,” Griffith said.

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