WYTHE COUNTY, Va., May 11, 2012 — Tom Acosta, a Welch, W.Va. artist and native, is anything but your typical “hillbilly.” A successful artist with a standing exhibit at The Greenbrier, he has come back to McDowell County to see what he can do to help in the war on the poverty in his home state.
I first learned about Tom while interviewing award winning documentary filmmaker Elaine McMillion. Her documentary “Hollow” will attempt to first, give a more accurate portrayal of the people of Appalachia and then give it a voice in addressing how to elevate the region from its long-standing poverty. Thanks to a successful fundraising campaign of $25,000, filming begins tomorrow.
Riding over to Welch last Saturday, I mulled over a list in my head of economic tools I had seen work in my own home, Wythe County, in the last 15 years. Shell buildings, industrial parks, and tax breaks for new industry came to mind, and they seemed like ideas that could work in McDowell County as well, that is, until I got there.
The biggest hurdle facing that part of West Virginia is the geography. As I wound my way along highway 52 from Bluefield to Welch, the flat land receded and the quality of the road diminished as my trip continued. By the time I had ridden through half a dozen unincorporated towns and arrived in Welch, there was virtually no flat land that was not already occupied.
The town, like many in this region, is stacked upon itself along the hillsides. The yards are small or nonexistent and gardens are a rarity. Of all the things that shocked me most, the absence of gardens ranked number one. Appalachia has a longstanding history of self-sufficiency through gardening and raising livestock, so to see an area that did neither was an eye opener and an indication that the usual approach probably would not work.
The descendant of migrant workers who followed the slaughter houses of the Midwest in the early 1900’s, Tom’s people first came to Appalachia during that era because they felt they could make more money mining coal.
This still holds true for his family today; Tom has a brother who still earns his living as a coal miner, an occupation he is proud to call his own. Despite the danger and sometimes negative stereotypes, coalminers are very proud of their profession and will not hesitate to tell you so.
Tom and I discussed at length the problems facing the region while he showed me his art, which he calls “American Realism.” Tom’s murals decorate the buildings of downtown Welch, including the largest mural in West Virginia, which is on the side of the Rhodes building, directly adjacent to the “Martha H. Moore Riverfront Park.” It is a beautiful mural and a beautiful park, worth a second look for anyone traveling through the area.
We both agreed courting outdoor recreation seems like the most obvious way to infuse the area with growth. As I was leaving Welch, I ran into a large group of A.T.V. enthusiasts fueling up on soda and sandwiches at a local store that seemed to confirm this notion. Developing A.T.V. parks and facilities seems very doable and lucrative, something I’m sure the participants of “Hollow” will point out in their dialogue.
Tom’s interest in the region is anything but casual. He has a thick book of names of the people and institutions that have come to the region in search of stories and solutions. Included are a host of publications, as well as the short-lived but critically applauded reality show “Coal.”
Although Tom holds no official title, it can be said without hesitation, he is an expert on the problems facing the region. His research is extensive and impressive, and his opinions and ideas are based upon this. To take that first step to identify the problems is also the first step in finding solutions, and he has been very busy doing both.
Tom, along with other like-minded McDowell County citizens, has agreed to take part in the dialogue in which “Hollow” will provoke while addressing the rebirth of small towns like Welch. If all the other participants are as informed and enthusiastic as Tom, I have high hopes for the outcome of this very worthwhile project.
This is another in a series of columns that will follow the progress of the film “Hollow.”
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