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RICHMOND — After a summer of public meetings, the successor to Virginia’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy has issued its recommendations for revitalizing Southwest Virginia’s a post-coal economy.

The Virginia Department of Energy, or Virginia Energy, released its Reenergize Southwest report on Dec. 1 after three public input meetings in Wise, Dickenson and Tazewell counties.

Virginia Energy joined with eight agencies to turn public comments into the report:

The Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority, Virginia Economic Development Partnership, Virginia Employment Commission, Southwest Virginia Workforce Development Board, Virginia Council on Environmental Justice, Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development and the LENOWISCO and Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commissions.

The report cites Southwest Virginia’s unemployment rate, which has stayed above the statewide level each year from 1990 to 2019 as the coal industry shed jobs. Referring to a 1988 General Assembly finding that Southwest Virginia was unable to diversify its economy, the report states, “The coal mining jobs of the past are gone and along with them, the financial security to carry on family and community traditions. … No single replacement for the coal industry exists.”

Reenergize Southwest followed legislation this spring repealing two Virginia tax credits for in-state coal production and related employment.

The report lists four recommendations for dealing with a declining coal industry:

• Ensure access to funding through the state’s site development fund

• Expand existing solar energy programs with more access by low- to moderate-income residents

• Support higher education growth and better quality of life for students living in surrounding communities

• Establish an interagency group to gather stakeholder comment on seven proposals

That interagency group, according to the report, would deal with seven proposals:

• Creating a small locality downtown revitalization matching fund

• Expanding the state Tobacco Commission’s Talent Attraction incentive program to pay down student loans for college graduates relocating to the region

• Launching simulated workplace pilot programs, bringing workplace standards to school training

• Setting up pilot childcare programs inside the region’s industrial parks

• Supporting the Southwest Virginia Energy Park Energy Lab project

• Supporting an Energy Storage and Electrification project

• Reforming the mission and composition of the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission

While several state agencies and funding sources were included in the report as resources, the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority was absent despite its existing programs for small business grants and grant-loan funding for larger business startups or relocation to the LENOWISCO and Cumberland Plateau planning district region.

VCEDA Executive Director Jonathan Belcher, in the Virginia Energy public meeting in Wise County, told Virginia Energy officials that declining coal severance tax funding — the authority’s funding source since the 1980s — made it important that the state allocate revenues after repeal of the coal tax credits.

Among the report’s public comment section are several letters from local government bodies, business owners, the Cumberland Plateau Planning Commission and two community colleges calling for continued VCEDA funding.

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