Nestled in the verdant mountains of Russell County, the tiny town of Dante was once a thriving coal community, its narrow main street bustling with business.
"Honey, this town boomed," says Terri Fields, 53, born and raised in this hamlet more than 300 miles west of Richmond. "We had a theater, barbershops, restaurants — you name it."
Now Dante is a shell of its former self; businesses shuttered, streets empty, many of the $20,000 to $30,000 homes lining Straight Hollow Road deteriorating or abandoned. Even the one remaining shop, the post office, could soon be closed.
"Then we won't have nothing," says Fields, who works part time as backup postmaster. "N-O-T-H-I-N-G, with all capital letters. And that's sad — it really is."
Dante is symbolic of a larger problem: Southwest Virginia is slowly dying.
According to new census data, nearly every county in the far western portion of the state — 18 in all, including Bath and Highland to the north — has recorded more deaths than births in the last decade, a phenomenon known as natural decrease. Fourteen counties in the region have lost overall population.
In the last decade, 82 percent of Virginia's population growth has occurred in the "urban crescent," encompassing the state's three major metropolitan areas — Northern Virginia, central Virginia and Hampton Roads — where more than two-thirds of Virginia's residents now live.
That magnetic pull, based largely on jobs, has left other regions struggling to keep pace economically and demographically, growing the chasm between the commonwealth's haves and have-nots and increasing pressure on leaders to find balance.
"The people who migrate are younger, and they move out of the rural areas for educational or job opportunities. And when they move, they bring their families or start their families in these destinations," explained Qian Cai, director of the Demographics and Workforce Group at the University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.
Southwest Virginia is a stark example, where many of the once-plentiful manufacturing plants have either relocated or folded and the coal industry is slumping, in part because of increasingly stringent environmental regulations.
"It's a dying industry," said Bobby Hilton, a coal worker with Wellmore Energy Company headed home from a long shift at a mine in mountainous Dickenson County.
Hilton blames the industry's decline largely on the Environmental Protection Agency. "I'll put it blunt, they're worried about trying to save tadpoles, we're worried about eating," he said.
State Sen. Phillip P. Puckett, D-Russell, agreed, saying that he often feels that the EPA "would shut everything down if they could get away with it."
Puckett noted that while the coal industry still drives the Southwest economy, the automation of many aspects of mining has eliminated jobs. The trade-off, he said, is that advances in technology have also allowed access to coal that could not have previously been mined and natural gas extraction has increased. "But there's no question that mining jobs are decreasing," he said.
Of the 18 counties experiencing natural decrease, the average unemployment rate is nearly 8 percent, significantly higher than the state average of 6.3 percent.
"Southside and Southwest Virginia are struggling through some very hard times and face some of the highest unemployment numbers in the state," said Gov. Bob McDonnell, adding that his administration had placed a "laser focus" on economic development in the rural areas to reverse the trend.
As evidence of progress in Southwest, McDonnell pointed to the state recently landing a deal with Phoenix Packaging Operations LLC, which will locate its North American headquarters in Pulaski County, bringing 240 new jobs.
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Jimmy O'Quinn lives with his wife and two sons high in the mountains of Dickenson, near the Kentucky line, off a steep and narrow drive called Hard Times Road. A former construction worker who helped build many of the winding mountain roads near his home, O'Quinn was disabled after an accident several years ago.
"I got run over by a tractor and about got killed," he said, noting that the road was named prior to his misfortune.
O'Quinn said his two sons will decide for themselves if they want to stay, but his own ventures beyond the region never took, with his family and a love for the rural lifestyle bringing him back.
"I've been in Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina, but never wanted to stay anywhere," he said. "I just never did much like being away from home."
In nearby Grundy, a town in Buchanan County that appears carved from the sheer mountain walls it sits beneath, residents hope a new Walmart shopping center, which will create hundreds of jobs, will inject life into the community.
Much of the town, the victim of numerous floods over the years, has been redeveloped through a partnership between the Army Corps of Engineers and the Virginia Department of Transportation to flood-proof what's left of the existing downtown area while building the new retail area.
Kristy Owens, 19, decided to stay in Grundy as many of her friends moved away, attending the University of Virginia's College at Wise. She now works in the county courthouse across from the development and hopes to become a teacher at one of the local schools.
"I really like it here — just the calmness," she said. "A lot of people do move away, just because there's not a lot of jobs, but that could be changing with the new Walmart and other new stores coming. I can see it picking up a little bit."
J. Carroll Branham, chairman of the Buchanan County Board of Supervisors, agreed, noting that a new call center has added 350 jobs.
Local leaders years ago founded two colleges in Buchanan County — the Appalachian College of Law and Appalachian College of Pharmacy — to help keep younger generations and address needs in the area. Next year, they will also open an optometry school.
The new problem, Branham said, is lack of infrastructure.
"There are jobs available here for anyone that wants to work, and there will be more," he said, "but a problem we've had is lack of space to build with the mountains here. We just plain did not have space for people to expand."
Branham said the county is making a strong push to correct that, investing in roads and development, but added that environmental regulations are getting in the way of progress.
"We've got a couple of roads we're working on where we've had applications in to the EPA for 18-20 months and it's nothing to do with mining coal," he said, adding that a $3.5 million expansion of Grundy's airport to accommodate corporate jet traffic has also been held up.
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In neighboring Russell County, there are also signs of life in the town of Lebanon, where two information technology firms — CGI and Northrop Grumman — opened new facilities in recent years, proving that high-tech can work in the rural areas.
Significant strides have been made in recent years toward expanding broadband availability in the area to attract similar firms.
There's also hope that tourism can be a part of reversing the population and job trends.
The town of Abingdon, in Washington County, is a well-known tourist destination that looks like a series of Norman Rockwell paintings.
Its thriving Main Street is lined by historic homes, restaurants and business offices with the stately Martha Washington Inn and Barter Theatre serving as its crown jewels.
"Abingdon is a true diamond in the rough," said Ramsey White, a former dentist who now owns and operates Zazzy'z Coffeehouse, a popular café, bean roastery and bookshop in town.
"Abingdon is basically professional tourism," White said, pointing to the recently opened $17 million Heartwood Artisans Center there as an effort on the state's part to expand that to encompass a larger swath of the region. The center will celebrate — and sell — the culture of Southwest Virginia to visitors, hoping to cash in on the history of arts, crafts and music that are alive and well in the region.
"It's a grand thing," said White, "and we hope it works out."
But even if marketing efforts bring dollars to the region, White acknowledges that drawing jobs and new residents is a trickier prospect.
"It's a wonderful place to raise children. I have three of them, but even though they love Abingdon, they want no part of it," he said with a laugh, noting that he did persuade one daughter to stay by offering a "deal she couldn't refuse" on a historic home he restored next door to his own.
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Filling in for a friend at Hicks Market, a roadside produce and canned-jam stand in Russell County's Castlewood area, Charlie Musick said the situation had grown particularly bleak in the more rural area.
"There's no work out here for this younger generation," he said in a thick Southwest twang. "Russell County had 294 young'uns to graduate this year. Where in the heck are they gonna get a job at 'round here?"
Born and raised in the area, Musick said most of the mines and textile factories in the area have closed in the past three decades. Farming has also declined, he said, becoming too costly an endeavor for many.
"A lot of the kids that do stay end up on drugs and never amount to a hill of beans," Musick said, pointing to the rise in methamphetamines and pharmaceuticals such as OxyContin.
It's a point that Puckett concedes.
"There's a huge drug dependency among our young people here in Southwest, which disqualifies people from a lot of the good jobs," he said.
A recent Department of Justice report showed a "verified presence" of Mexican drug cartels in the city of Galax.
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., this year asked the White House to add 13 counties in Southwest Virginia to a high-intensity drug trafficking area, allowing local law enforcement federal assistance in combating drugs and related crime.
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To the east, the terrain is different, but the problems are similar.
Tony Blair, 65, was born and raised in Southwest Virginia before leaving to embark on a career as a geologist. He recently returned to take care of his ailing mother in Pulaski County and can't find work.
"It's a beautiful area, but it's a really tough place. The textile industry has really gone down. It's that and geography," he said, adding that having to blast a road through the mountains is less desirable than building them in flatlands. "And maybe the image, too — that we're all hillbillies."
Blair added that one thing that Pulaski, and all of Southwest, has to build on is its natural beauty, pointing to the New River Trail State Park — which meanders 57 miles through four counties along an abandoned railroad right-of-way — as a prime example.
"One of our best assets is the trail, because it's kind of hard to move a trail to China," he said.
Puckett said the North American Free Trade Agreement was a big blow to the area in the mid-'90s. As trade with Mexico and Canada increased, manufacturing in the area decreased. More recently, the jobs have shifted overseas, where labor is far cheaper.
The results speak for themselves. Pulaski is a ghost town of abandoned manufacturing plants, once home to furniture and textile companies including Pulaski Furniture.
"They all moved to China," said Ralph Dobbins, the former sheriff, sitting down to lunch with his 16-year-old son Corey.
"Me and his mother have no expectations that he'll stay around here," Ralph said of his son. "There's nothing here for young folks to do. There's really nothing here for adults to do. There's a McDonald's and a Walmart; that's about the extent of your night."
Corey, who wants to become an engineer, is already planning his escape.
"I'll definitely get out of here," he said. "Not to a big city, but something bigger than here. As a place to grow up, it's fine. It's just not a place to stay."