Mayor Tom Cole discusses his city in decline.
A MUTUAL FRIEND put me in touch with Bluefield’s Mayor Thomas Cole, whom I met in a new restaurant he owned in downtown Bluefield, a block or so from the NS building. He and his family were prominent business leaders and have been politically active for decades. His older brother was currently running for governor of West Virginia. The restaurant was called The Railyard, located on the main floor of a four-story brick building on Raleigh Street.
This was one of many of Tom’s business ventures. The primary family business was in automobiles, and they were one of the largest automobile dealerships in the area. Tom was a tall, dapper man with a Yul Brynner haircut and a tightly trimmed goatee. He wore a suit jacket and tie.
When he clarified his surname for me, I said jokingly, “It’s ‘C o l e,’ not ‘C o a l’ (spelling them out), yes?”
“That’s right,” he said, not taking my bait to chuckle. “I am a second generation mayor of Bluefield. My father was mayor in the 1980s. He is the longest serving mayor in Bluefield’s history, thirteen years. He was mayor during tough transitions for the city. He was William Paul Cole, Jr. My older brother is the third.”
I asked him to describe his community.
“Bluefield is a casualty. In its heyday, we were an epicenter of activity. Prior to the global economy, we were headquarters for lots of corporations. There is no coal mined in Mercer County, but we serviced the mines. There was mining to the north and west of us. In the ramp-up of the industrial age, thousands of people were brought to the coal mining areas. The peak year here was in the 1950s. I was born in 1967. My entire life I have lived in a community in decline.
“I’m blessed. My family has been involved in this community and been successful. The car business has allowed our family to move into other opportunities. My family started in the baking business. That’s what my father and grandfather did. I guess we trace our roots to the late 1800s when L. C. Cole arrived. He showed up in his covered wagon in what is now Bluefield, Virginia, and then was Graham, Virginia, and set up a grocery store.
“Bluefield was bigger and brighter and the streets were cleaner when I was a kid, even if they weren’t. It’s the way you remember things. We’ve always been a railroad town. That’s been a driving factor of Bluefield’s prosperity from the beginning. All the way into the 1980s, the national and world economy began to really take a toll.
“Downtown is still impressive. There are lots of big buildings. There are a lot of smaller communities on your route that were never the powerhouse that Bluefield was. We were little New York. It was a big deal for people in the surrounding areas to come to Bluefield. We’d have Christmas parades and people would be six people deep for as long as you could see watching it. We had every department store imaginable downtown. Big banks. Insurance companies. Coal and land companies. We were a hub of activity. Two parking garages. Two theaters. This was even into the 1970s.
“Around 1980, we got a mall, and the malls killed downtowns and Walmart killed the malls. All the department stores left. Sears. Montgomery Ward. Leggett. Cox’s. All of them left. That took a huge piece of the retail segment of Bluefield. But we still had a fair amount of commercial (business). We started losing those, too. That was from the global economy, and the mergers, consolidations, and acquisitions. The need for brick and mortar (facilities) became less and less.
“We’ve continued to depend on coal and the railroad. We’ve always been the support center for coal mining operations. We were the gateway, both physically and economically. Lots of stuff was staged here. Our coal industry has been decimated. There were a lot of factors. I’m not assessing blame. There is some hope for Southern West Virginia coal, the metallurgical coal, but it’s expensive to get to. But what we used to know, it’s not coming back.
“We are likely still dropping in population. We’ve lost a lot of people interested in the community and willing to participate. Our city board, five members, is all new, as of 2013. I’m one of five, the chairman who runs the board. We only get a $200/month stipend. Citizens are getting a good deal; we work really hard.
“I believe our economic development fate still lies with the railroad. We may have an opportunity with a bulk transfer terminal. Inland customs. We’re proceeding with a proposal to the railroad. Bluefield is on the Heartland Corridor, and there is a tremendous amount of freight that comes through here. We’re 30 minutes from three separate Interstate systems. There’s potential there.
“We know that (Bluefield) will never come back the way it was. There are a lot of communities that were once thriving communities that went into decline. But around here, there were not those of the size and breadth of Bluefield. Some were able to regenerate and give birth to arts, music, and eclectic tourism. Bluefield has a legacy cost of large buildings downtown. Others had two and three-story buildings; ours has eight and twelve. At one time, every office on every floor was full. Now they’re empty and many are in disrepair.
“We had a classic old downtown hotel that a few years ago simply collapsed. The street was blocked for weeks while the debris was cleared. My great grandfather built the West Virginia Hotel, now utilized as a retirement home. It is difficult to do anything with an eight-story building that has few or no tenants, especially if it’s 100 years old and has been vacant for thirty.
“It’s not a popular thought, but we’ll need to tear a lot of them down if they don’t have an opportunity for a future life, even some of the historically significant ones. Infrastructure maintenance is a huge concern. Our storm-water system is over 100 years old in places. Some flows through terra-cotta pipe.
“We’re still losing good jobs. The bakery my grandfather started finally closed down after several owners. Unceremoniously. They put a padlock on the gate and closed it. There were perhaps 100 jobs which you can’t replace.
“We don’t house big corporations. We don’t have manufacturing companies in the city. We’re taking an active role in economic development, but it’s tough. We’ve hired someone to focus on this. He has lots of local knowledge and years of experience. It’s a risk, an investment of city resources to grow the base, to stop the base from eroding. Corporate America is at the root of all the problems this country has.”
We discussed several national politicians, agreeing that most are in the pocket of big business. “I’m the most liberal Republican you’ll find,” he said.
Figure 39, Mural in Bluefield
Looking to wrap up, I asked, “Why is Bluefield a place that anybody would want to move to, visit, or start a company?”
“We all struggle with that. We ask ourselves that question every day. What can we do to make this a place people want to be? Our future lies with health care and potentially with the railroad. They’ve closed their office here, so it’s pretty tough to put our eggs in that basket. But there are a lot of trains that still roll through Bluefield.
“There are people investing in this community. I’m one of them. I was tired of not having a place to go and listen to music and have a drink. When you’re here (in the restaurant), you feel like you’re in a more progressive area. Charlotte. New York. Asheville. I like to hear people smiling and laughing and having a cold beer. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I am proud. I’m happy to have made it happen. It makes me feel good inside. Hopefully at some point it will be profitable. It was something we needed. When the hospital’s CEO brings a prospective doctor to town, if he brings him here our chance of landing him goes up. If you’re a 30-something doctor, this is an amenity you’d look for. We’ve brought some great music here that was never here before.
“We have the highest African American population in the state by percentage. If we have a jazz night, many of them will come. Selfishly, I wanted a place to go and have a good meal, a good beer, and hear some great music. But I love the fact that there are other people who are so happy!”
THE ABOVE ARTICLE is excerpted 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.