WISE — Jack Kennedy drove to the Lonesome Pine Airport earlier this year, shining his headlights through a wire fence and onto a grass field that he said witnessed history not so long ago.
This is where the first sanctioned U.S. drone delivery took place in 2015. Kennedy was the one who made sure it happened in his rural hometown, a community in search of an economic savior. Kennedy and others are targeting the high-tech drone industry for the former coalfields of Southwest Virginia.
Remote controlled quadcopters are mostly reserved for hobbyists today, but the technology is rapidly entering the mainstream. Kennedy imagines a day when drones will offer a wide range of blue collar style jobs, from remotely checking power lines to gathering water samples from streams.
Companies such as Amazon, Google and Facebook, with big drone ambitions, need to test their new capabilities over communities that are sparsely populated enough for the work to be safe and open-minded enough to embrace the technology.
Wise County is both.
That’s the future of the area, Kennedy said before throwing his SUV into reverse and heading toward one of the most visible signs of the county’s past.
He turned left onto Old Hurricane Road, winding through hills misshapen from generations of mining but desolate now. The vehicle lurched to a stop at another fence, this one topped with barbed wire and no trespassing signs.
Kennedy’s headlights exposed mining equipment, rusted and almost unrecognizable. Pushers and crushers previously used in underground mines sat in neat rows stretched across an 11-acre field.
The equipment once supported thousands of high-paying jobs in Wise County, where Alpha Natural Resources reigned. After the mines shut down and the coal company filed for bankruptcy in 2015, Kennedy said, locals started noticing the rows of machines.
Grass has grown up around the equipment and tires have sunken into the mud. Kennedy estimated the machines’ worth in the millions of dollars. Yet no one is buying.
“It’s a graveyard,” Kennedy said.
These are the stakes for Wise County: Adapt or die.
Asked about the feasibility of turning old coal jobs into new drone jobs, neither Kennedy nor anyone else involved in the region’s economic development balked. They can’t afford to look back.
“That limits our future and the future of our children and grandchildren, as well as ourselves. We’re better people than that,” Kennedy said. “We’ve got to convince, No. 1, ourselves that we can do it. And, No. 2, show others throughout Virginia that we’re capable and competent to do it.”
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Wise County has ridden the coal industry through generations of booms and busts, but this downturn feels different, county officials said.
Even if the industry bounces back, much of the easily extractable coal has been mined already.
Coal and gas severance taxes, which are paid in proportion to the amount extracted from the region, accounted for 17.5 percent of Wise County’s total revenue in 2010, according to data from county finance administrator David Cox.
Those revenues fell from $13 million in 2011 to $3 million in 2015.
“[Past leaders] didn’t focus on the time when coal would not be part of our economy because times were good, money was flowing,” Cox said. “They spent the coal severance.”
Cox, who was a mining industry employee before going to work for the county, said the error is abundantly clear today. But it’s too late to correct.
For the upcoming year, he’s budgeted coal severance tax revenues of $2 million, all of which he hopes to see invested in economic development efforts.
Meanwhile, county schools are being consolidated, there’s a county hiring freeze and no end in sight for the cutbacks.
The coal industry that employed 1,851 people in Wise County in 2005 shrank to 527 jobs by 2015, according to the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.
County Administrator Shannon Scott said the largest employers are now local schools, hospitals, banks and commercial retail.
Wal-Mart and other retailers now employ more people than coal, he said: “Sad.”
Carl Snodgrass, who has led county economic development efforts for decades, spoke of the current situation with realistic optimism. Coal took the biggest chunk out of the economy, but he also has seen declines in manufacturing, textiles, timber and agriculture.
“We’re about out of options as far as the current economy is concerned,” Snodgrass said, explaining why locals are now turning to high-tech. “We’re just trying to do whatever we can to salvage the population, retain families with school-aged children. It’s tough.”
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Kennedy is Wise County’s elected circuit court clerk. But the lifelong space enthusiast and former state lawmaker has a hand in all corners of local government — especially economic development.
He acknowledges that the drone industry won’t grow large enough to replace all the jobs lost in the downturn.
But it’s a start, he said.
He said he wants to see a plan rolled out in three phases.
First, Kennedy said, the county needs to train a small army of drone pilots so they can pass Federal Aviation Administration certification tests, part of a relatively new system that offers a first-movers advantage.
Once Wise County has a sizable group of trained drone pilots and mechanics, Kennedy said, the county can recruit companies to take advantage of that expertise, along with the region’s sparsely populated acreage.
Wise would have a lot going for it, Kennedy said. Some of the most attractive features might be the type of open airspace where one still can see the Milky Way at night, and a local government that is willing to try anything.
It might never make sense for Google to launch a commercial drone delivery service in Wise County, Kennedy said. But maybe this is where the company could come to perfect the technology before a nation-wide rollout.
“Half of Wise County is national forest, 10 percent is state forest and another 25 percent is mined land,” Kennedy said. “As a result, there’s a lot of room for error.”
The final step of Kennedy’s plan is to convert that drone industry cluster into jobs.
Wise County will have to wait for one of the applications tested here to take off. By then, Kennedy said, the area would be the most natural place for more permanent operations, such as engineering offices and manufacturing facilities.
“We want to develop that niche, and do it well,” Kennedy said. “If we develop human capital, they will come. It’s not about building the infrastructure. It’s educating the human.”
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The plan has received support locally and across the state. Gov. Terry McAuliffe has made stops in Wise to discuss the potential of the drone industry to revitalize former coal communities.
“We have a huge opportunity, especially in Southwest and Southside Virginia with some of the hardest working folks in America, great skill sets,” McAuliffe told The Roanoke Times. “This is a new economy. I don’t care where you live in Virginia, I can find a job for you.”
The Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority, a state organization focusing on revitalizing coal-producing communities, recently designated the drone industry as a targeted business sector. Spokeswoman Susan Copeland said it’s still early, but she’s begun attending drone trade shows to get a better idea of what the industry is seeking.
Wise County supervisors Chairman Bob Adkins said he “wouldn’t know a drone from a turtle shell.” But he’s backing the efforts nonetheless.
“We don’t have a lot going for us since coal left,” Adkins said. “We are very supportive of any rumor or any hint or any indication of economic development partner coming.”
Fred Coeburn, who has begun teaching some of Virginia’s first drone classes at nearby Mountain Empire Community College, said his father and grandfather were coal miners. He knows well the stereotypes and the tendency people have to balk at the idea of retraining coal workers to become high-tech drone pilots.
“Those are the people who don’t know what coal mining is. They don’t know how high-tech it has become,” Coeburn said. “When coal is mined, it’s done with a remote control, just like this [drone]. A drone operator is someone who is dedicated to accomplishing their mission, has hand-eye motor skills and knows how to run a machine. Coal miners fit this bill.”
Virginia Secretary of Technology Karen Jackson agreed.
She said the state has been investing heavily in attracting the drone industry since at least 2013, when the FAA named Virginia Tech as one of six certified drone test sites. Jackson said Wise County since has established itself as a state leader.
“They understand and are willing to make the commitment that this is something they want to investigate, invest in and really become by building an ecosystem,” Jackson said. “So part of it is not just the fact that it’s a nice fit from a topography and geography standpoint. It’s also the fact that you have a willingness and belief by the people there that it’s possible. When you couple those two together, that’s a pretty good combination.”
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The county continues to celebrate smaller wins that locals say are steps in the right direction.
It was the site of the first drone delivery, which made national news and is known locally as the region’s own “Kitty Hawk moment,” a references to the North Carolina coastal town where the Wright brothers launched the first controlled powered airplane flights.
Local economic development groups have received millions of dollars in government grants to promote the industry, and Manassas-based Aurora Flight Sciences has decided to leave one of its Centaur optionally piloted aircraft at the county’s airport for testing around Wise.
Kennedy said he’s discussed with drone industry leaders the possibility of experiments around Wise. A group of Israeli companies is scheduled to tour the area later this month.
Coeburn has been offering his drone classes for two years now, ushering through about 45 students.
The courses previously did not count toward a degree or certification. But Coeburn this year received permission to create a new course prefix (UMS, which stands for unmanned systems) just for drone classes. Students can take a series of courses toward a certificate from Mountain Empire Community College. Other colleges can use the prefix to offer their own curriculum.
“As far as replacing every coal mining job that’s been lost in the five years in this area with drones, that’s not going to happen. We don’t even dream like that — but we can try,” Coeburn said. “Every single job in this area counts. When you see someone leave this [classroom] door saying, ‘I got a job’ and you can see the smile on their face — that’s all that matters.”