While in town, I called on an old Virginia Tech classmate, Peter Richardson, who works in a law firm on the ground floor of the Law and Commerce Building right around the corner from Thomas Cole’s restaurant. It’s a 10-story building that was built in 1918, Bluefield’s first modern office building. In the Neo Classical Revival style, it featured a bowling alley in the basement to provide recreation for area workers.
Pete got a degree in Mechanical Engineering with me, but rather than pursuing that as a career he went to law school and joined his father in their family firm. He’s been working there ever since.
We exchanged pleasantries in his unadorned conference room with a window overlooking Federal Street, and I asked him about the change he’d seen during his life. He said, noting what we all recognize, “The economy has substantially changed since we got out of school. Back then, Bluefield was a regional center for wholesaling, retailing, and services. The world has changed in many ways from that arrangement. Bluefield has suffered as a result.
“People would use the Powhatan Arrow and local trains for shopping and recreation. Automobiles are much more prevalent than they were 60 years ago. A lot of activity does not stop here in Mercer County, but it goes to the south and the north.
“We used to have a number of companies on Bluefield Avenue (just to the west alongside the tracks) in the wholesale business, assisting the extraction (i.e., coal) business in McDowell County and elsewhere. There were a number of warehousing companies. Many are gone now. They ultimately became prey to other, larger, better capitalized companies from elsewhere: Roanoke, Charlotte, even Charleston.
“I do business law, but mostly commercial and banking. Business is good. I’m not putting together deals as much now as taking them apart. We’re helping with deals on the downside rather than the upside.
“The economy has changed nationwide. I have two kids. Both went to colleges in other states and now live in other states. I’m living through the process and population shifts that others have. And I’m sensitive to the issue.”
I asked if he knew when we graduated where Bluefield would be today, if he still would have come back to work his career there. He said, “Absolutely. I had the opportunity to sit at the same desk my grandfather sat and practice law in this building for 40 years. I practiced next to my father for 30 years. I lived in the same community as my in-laws and parents. I have a close brother who lives nearby in Athens (WV). So I wouldn’t have changed a thing. For me, there’s a lot to be said for that. I have many advantages. But I recognize lots of disadvantages, too.”
I told him I’d just met with Tom Cole. Pete said about him, “He comes from a family that is well-entrenched here. They have a long history here, and they have made a substantial investment family-wide and personally to the community. If Bluefield does have a future, it will take people like Tom.
“There are still a few benefactors, but not as many as there used to be. I’m not sure how well their assistance is capitalized on. Tom is doing his part. Others are, too. It takes people to support themselves.
“There are changes in lots of industries, not just in Bluefield, in banking, insurance, telecommunications, and utilities. Lots of companies in these industries used to have regional offices here. Norfolk Southern used to have a regional office here. All of these things are slowly or quickly changing, mostly not for the better, at least locally. Things are different in communities like Bluefield that don’t have the benefit of a large university to fuel the economy.”
He said there were a lot of advantages to living in Charlotte or Atlanta. But they come with a cost. How you do that analysis, personally, dictates your decision. “I don’t think I knew when I finished law school that Bluefield would be in a decline my entire working life, certainly not to the extent we’ve experienced. I was aware that Bluefield’s population in the 1950s was significantly more than even in the late 70s. At the time it was due to mechanization in the mines. But we were still mining lots of coal. You could sit outside here and look at the (rail) yard and see lots of trains filled with it. Coal production has always been on a roller coaster, based upon the world economy.
“When we were in school in the early 1970s and the oil embargo was on, coal was doing fine. Our country was desperate for any source of BTUs. Since then it hasn’t done as well. People have made and lost fortunes working in coal in different economic conditions. If you can’t sell it for more than it costs you to produce it, you can’t produce it for very long. Now the industry is not only struggling with the EPA, it’s also struggling with cheap natural gas. If you’re looking for factors to blame, there are many to go around.
“The problem from the EPA is the uncertainty in the permitting process. Mines are extremely expensive. Even in good times, the payoff is long. When there’s uncertainty and you’ve spent a pile of money to develop a mine and you’ve obtained your permit, with changes in political administrations, if the permit is revoked, you would be discouraged from ever making that decision again.
“So there are a lot of factors. It’s an extremely challenging time, for a number of reasons.”
THE ABOVE ARTICLE is an excerpt from the book Chasing the Powhatan Arrow, a Travelogue in Economic Geography by Michael Abraham. In it, Abraham traces the route of the famous Norfolk & Western passenger train from Norfolk through Roanoke and across the southern reach of West Virginia from Oakvale (Mercer County) through stops in Bluefield, Welch, Williamson, and Kenova into Ohio and terminating in Cincinnati, discussing the history, culture, geography, and especially the economy of this fascinating, varied corridor. Chasing the Powhatan Arrow, a Travelogue in Economic Geography is published by Pocahontas Press and is available on the author’s website at http://bikemike.squarespace.com/chasing-the-powhatan-arrow/ and on Amazon.com.