Finding alternative economic development in the hinterlands

Crystal Cook Marshall


Virginia Tech doctoral student, science and technology studies in society
Former outreach coordinator, Appalachian Research Initiative in Environmental Science (ARIES)
Phone: 704-978-9404


What is your dissertation focused on?
 The subject matter is theorizing the rural. I’m specifically looking at economic and community development in areas that are hinterlands—places that are off the beaten path, places that don’t have great geographic access—and what do we do about economic development there?  My case study is the southern West Virginia coalfields, but my work would be applicable in other kinds of scenarios. (Click here for a summary of Cook Marshall’s dissertation research)

Are there problems that are particular to hinterlands?
‘Hinterland’ to begin with is already problematic. There are a couple different theories in geography, and one of them is that the reason that cities are economically diverse is that they have great geographic access. So where you have great geographic access, you’re going to have points of places for lots of different kinds of industry, import/export, internally and externally. If you are hinterland, it means it is more difficult to get product in and out of where you are. The technical term for it is that you are outside of a commuter shed. New York City has a really large commuter shed—people will go three or four hours and travel every day to New York City to work. Your other smaller metropolitan areas have smaller commuter sheds. The hinterlands are beyond the commuter shed. It means that they are unlikely to have folks travel for work very far. They’re not a bedroom community for anywhere, so their economies will often stand alone.

In the last 120-130 years, not every place, but a lot of those places became single-sector economies. That means that the timber industry came in and with the introduction of manufacturing, they produced X. The introduction of coal mining is actually relatively recent in our region. so the 1880’s—people came to that, so that became a coalfield region after that. That was single-sector.  So, if you’re a single sector and hinterland, it’s not a problem as long as the single sector is chugging along. But once they mechanize or don’t need human workers anymore, then you end up with a lot of problems. Again, that is not just specific to our region but we have plenty of those kinds of sites throughout our region.

Can towns in the hinterland compensate for that placement?
A few years ago the big buzzword in our region was ‘economic diversification’ and something that I looked at was what does it really mean to be economically diverse?  As I mentioned before, larger cities with a lot of access—I don’t want to say that economic diversification is a natural phenomenon there, but there certainly is a lot more impetus for economic diversification.  If you are in hinterland, if you’ve been single-sector and it’s been resource-based and you’re selling timber, how are you going to diversify that? What’s going to be the reason people are going to come there and do something else? Is starting one more industry diverse? What do you mean by diverse? The issue then becomes demand for whatever it is that you have.

The contrasting places I like to talk about are Aspen, Colorado, and Bluefield, West Virginia. Bluefield has a larger population, but who lives there compared to Aspen, Colorado? Aspen’s kind of out of the way, but you have the Aspen Institute, you have a film festival, you have a classical music festival, the kinds of things Aspen is known for. Just that you’re hinterland isn’t something that’s necessarily bad—it’s who’s there, how has the economic sector been supported, whatever people are up to, is it the kind of thing that could be automated away? In the case of Aspen, a classical music festival—you can’t really automate that away if people want to see live music. The Aspen Institute, it’s a policy and thinking institute, you can’t really automate that away.  Or it’s a film festival, people are coming live to see the film festival, so it’s built around recreation and tourism and thinking.  Whereas if you have a place that’s build around timber, mining or whatever, once the processes are automated away, then you just don’t need people. If you’re in that kind of town, there are lots of questions to ask.

What kinds of questions should those towns be asking?
We’ve seen a natural attrition of folks in our region, there are lots of places in our region that are losing population, and part of the question that we don’t ask in our region that towns would be good to ask themselves is ‘how big ought we be?’  I mean that’s really a death knell for some politicians to ask, because our economy is supposedly built on growth and always looking to attract people in and there’s this idea that we’re going to attract some new manufacturing plant or some kind of new something in to a hinterland location. But that really hasn’t happened in a lot of places and at the same time, there hasn’t been an explicit discussion about ‘how big ought we be?’

I’ll give the case of McDowell County, West Virginia. When coal as an industry started up there, in the early 1880s, McDowell County had a population of about 3,500.  At coal’s peak need for workers—that was the late 1950s—it peaked at 100,000 people. Well now it’s down to about 16,000, and maybe its right size is really somewhere between 3,500 and 16,000.

There are other places on earth, like Sweden or Japan, when you talk about going to a hinterland area and putting in some kind of manufacturing place or mining or whatever you’re going to do there, you can’t only have an entrance plan and talk about jobs; they have a policy that you have to talk about your exit plan. I don’t know how their severance taxes work, but you have to have a plan and put money aside for the day that that facility closes, for the relocation of people, and for retraining of people. That goes into your feasibility plan for your plant. We don’t have that here in the United States. We don’t have right size discussions—‘how big ought we be?’ Now can we plan for that? Maybe we’re going to get down to 1,000 people, and what would our town be like if we were 1,000 people, and what could we have there with only 1,000 people.

In our region, there are a few sectors you could look at that are emerging that have some good anchor groups. Whether they are single-sector in these areas, that remains to be seen, but they’re not necessarily the energy sector, which is one of the sectors that I look at, so an emerging sector in our region is agriculture and sustainable agriculture, where people are actually making a living off of that. If you are hinterland and you have access to land—often people are land-rich but cash-poor—there are a lot of movements and folks happening and doing trainings and so on to get some locations back to the agricultural roots of our region, so that’s one thing you could look at if you’re hinterland.

Tourism, of course, is another one. That has to be coupled with outreach outside of the region. My point that I make to people is we can’t all just go visit each other, so if you’re thinking you want to do something that is related to tourism, how are you going to get known and attract folks from beyond the region, and what are you doing that’s fascinating enough to bring people there? One example is Williamson, West Virginia, that’s pretty far off the beaten path and they’re looking at extreme sports. It’s not just having people come and kayak, it’s that they have done the analysis that people into extreme sports have ‘X’ income, they spend ‘X’ on it. They have the terrain that suits that, they have the infrastructure with their ATV tourism, that this would be something that they could use a lot of the same infrastructure to then attract people doing extreme sports. They’re doing something a little unusual for their twist on tourism.

The last one is the creative economy, whether people are artisanal producers, artists, modern artists, contemporary artists, musicians. There are groups and people who are making a living doing those things throughout our region. Can your location promote that? Can it promote all of these? And more important than any of this, can it introduce something that cannot be automated away? You had all these jobs in the late ‘50s. There was an introduction to the continuous miner and those jobs were cut by half. So the goal of this large-scale manufacturing and large-scale industry is not to hire anybody. If they can get out of hiring people, they are not going to hire you. They may come in and be extremely productive, whether it’s uranium mining in Danville or coal mining in southwest Virginia or wherever. They can produce a lot, but they don’t want to hire people to do it. People are a liability. We get sick, we unionize, you have to pay our insurance, you have to pay our retirement. This is not just manufacturing in our region, or industrial processes in our region, this is everywhere.  If you are hinterland, and you’re small, your thinking has to be about what can we attract in, or what can we create, that can’t be automated away.

What is something you wish mayors or town managers know that they don’t?
There are several things I wish that they knew. The energy sector in our region is here to stay. We are a very resource-rich area. However, it is unlikely that they are going to introduce anything that means hiring many people. So, even if you spend a lot of energy trying to attract in a large manufacturer or some large plant or you open an industrial park, everyone who’s in charge of that is trying not to hire anyone. So, know that.

Second of all, we have some interesting social entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs in our region in the sectors I just mentioned—agriculture and sustainable agriculture creative economy, tourism, recreation. Those sectors overlap. It is difficult to automate the production in those sectors. So go out, get out of your office and go find the people doing those things. The thing that I tell folks, especially in development or even foundations, is that maybe the people that are already in your social circles or are sending grants to you, maybe they’re not the most innovative folks that are out there, they just know how to be in the system. So get out and go find the people in your community who are doing something interesting.

Next, in our region in particular we have a wealth of, what I call Appalachian innovation possibilities, and that is folks that are sitting on heritage knowledge, whether its artisanal knowledge or machine processes knowledge, or how to work the land, or understand the ginseng-ing aspect of farm harvest. We have a lot of people who have manufacturing experience, whether it was working like my mother did in the sewing factory in Bland or in Princeton where my uncle and my grandfather worked in the mines and have also been welders in the mines in McDowell County, West Virginia. We have a lot of mid-career or older folks who have that knowledge, and we also have great institutions like Virginia Tech or Bluefield State or UVA-Wise, folks that are focused on 21st century outputs—what if we brought those together? We might come up with some interesting takes on solving some of our current issues. Although I agree that it is dreadful that we are bleeding young people in our region, for the most part they aren’t the people who are embodied with all of this knowledge, so we are really skipping over the Generation X and baby boomer and older set of folks who have a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge, and could be brought in together in some kind of formal or informal way to help solve issues in our region.

One of my favorite stories is the story of a vascular surgeon who was part of a program to get your citizenship faster if you worked in an area that was high needs, so he was working in Williamson, West Virginia.  He had all these ideas for inventions and he looked for someone to fabricate his ideas. The cost outside of the region was astronomical. He was able to go right down the road to some welders, or some machine shop, and they produced it for him at the fraction of the cost.  We have lots of folks with that kind of knowledge in our region.  Maybe it’s not nanotechnology and maybe it’s not the kinds of things that get you a Department of Defense grant if you’re a university looking at investing or supporting this. But we still have to have stuff made, we still have to have stuff fabricated, we still have to have inventions created, and we still have to come up with new processes and new ways of reclaiming our land or boosting our economy or solving our issues.

Those are some things you could look at if you’re a town manager or a city manager, if you’re looking for partnerships with universities or looking for partnerships out among the folks where you are—go see what their skills are, and see what you can put to work already from them.

Are you optimistic about the ability of small towns to succeed?
I’m very enthusiastic and excited about alternative economic development in our region. That’s the focus of my work. More than probably ever before, in the last year, a whole flood of opportunities for cross-border regional collaboration and coordination has emerged. There’s so many exciting projects out there. I am very adamant about helping people specifically in coal fields areas link into that. There are people doing good work there, but they might not be in the same social networks as other folks, so I’m very glad to help the hinterland communities or places that have been traditionally coal-dependent or natural-gas dependent or single-sector dependent, link into the larger conversation in our region.