By Sara Lamb
Sara served as an intern with Appalachian Voices’ Norton office during the summer of 2019.
Have you ever noticed that your town has its own personality? Assets that make it unique? Do you know how many variables factor into the ambiance your community has created? I am currently reading a book called Small Town Sexy by Kim Huston. It talks about the jazz of living in small-town America — how charming it is and how each town is alike yet different. Almost every word is relatable if you grew up anywhere with a population of less than 15,000, but what about an unincorporated town of 650?
Each town has ongoing initiatives that you probably weren’t even aware of unless you are employed by the town or state, or subscribed to some email list that more than likely gets filtered to “other.” It could just be my young age, but until I began working for the local university, I had no idea how much my tiny corner of Southwest Virginia was trying to grow.
One such community is a former coal camp just north of St. Paul, Virginia. The unincorporated community of Dante, population 650, is enriched by its history and culture. Formerly the headquarters of Clinchfield Coal Corporation, Dante is located about 8 miles off of U.S. Route 58 Alternate, nestled cozily in the mountains and near the Clinch River. Dante is envisioning a path towards economic transition and vitality. In March 2016 the community formed the Dante Community Association (DCA), an all-volunteer group of residents and organizations that are striving to transform the town through the development and implementation of a strategic plan funded by numerous grants and partnerships.
In partnership with Virginia Tech’s Community Design Assistance Center, the Dante Community Association has worked over the past two years to capture community input, commit that vision to paper and set forth a strategic plan as a roadmap to fulfill the desired outcome. They aim to be an affordable and safe residential community that has preserved the history of their coal heritage while implementing new energy resources. Since 2017, the community has completed two of the projects identified in the plan: a new playground and a main welcome sign for the town. The DCA has logged well over 8,000 volunteer hours from community members all in the name of making Dante a better place to live, and has received numerous grants to help implement the strategic plan.
Rallying across SWVAOne such grant called Rally (Real Action Leadership Learning – YAY) SWVA, now helps even the smallest of communities begin this process of creating thriving entrepreneurial centers. The $3,000 mini-grant program not only offers to fund a visible project but encourages local leaders to work together in order to achieve a common goal that advances the community vision and creates a better environment for entrepreneurs. You will see in the photo above the proud members of the Dante Community Association celebrating their accomplishment of signage entering and exiting Dante, Virginia.
“The impact of Rally is far greater than the signs you see in the community of Dante or the projects in other communities,” said Carla Glass, chair of DCA. “Momentum is important in communities and the tangible results of Rally are ideal for keeping the momentum going. In Dante, we refer to that momentum as hope.”
Abandoned mine lands
Rally is not the only grant for which Dante has received funding. In February 2019, Dante was awarded two grants from the Virginia Brownfields Restoration and Economic Redevelopment Assistance Fund and the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy’s Abandoned Mine Land (AML) Pilot program. Both of these grants are designed to do environmental remediation and economic development at the same time which has resulted in mountain bike trails to connect Dante and Saint Paul. Partnering with Appalachian Voices, DCA was able to write an AML Pilot grant for one portion of their strategic plan; the development of ATV, walking, and mountain bike trails, and the closing of two dangerous and open abandoned mine portals.
Coming full circle
The small towns in my home area are so similar but so unique in their personality, history, and geography. With the 2019 SWVA Economic Forum at UVa-Wise, “Transformation through Technology,” still fresh in my mind, I asked Carla Glass how Dante compares to the rest of Virginia in regards to energy research and economic development to overall aid the future development of SWVA. She responded, “They battle the same challenges that the rest of the communities face, big or small, but everyone cheers for the underdog. We desire to be a beacon of hope and a model for other communities to feel inspired and equipped. It is not impossible, as long as there is passion there is hope.”
One of the constant themes I have seen in my work with Rally and my volunteering with Appalachian Voices is the importance of partnerships in making change. Dante had a vision; by focusing on what they had, mapping their assets, and then finding strategic partners, they have achieved quite a lot in a short period of time. The community members’ passion is truly inspirational. Growing up, I spent years plotting my escape from SWVA. Now, I relish the endless opportunities I see to help make my home a better place through partnerships with multiple organizations across the region.
Read more about the AML Pilot Program in the Oct/Nov 2019 issue of The Appalachian Voice.