“I bet you know where Dante, Virginia, is now!”
The closing line of Russell County Supervisor Lou Wallace’s opening ceremonies speech captured the celebratory mood on Oct. 30 in Dante as community members, project partners and state and local officials gathered to commemorate the opening of a new trail, campground and recreation area. The project involved remediating environmental hazards, including closing abandoned mine portals, and is expected to increase tourism and provide other economic and environmental benefits to the community.
This new recreation area features approximately 16 miles of new trails that will connect to existing trails around the nearby town of Saint Paul, and the campground features full amenities including a bath house that provides onsite laundry facilities.
The successful completion of the project represents over five years of efforts on the part of the Dante Community Association, an all-volunteer group of local residents, and its project partners, which included the Russell County Board of Supervisors, Appalachian Voices, Virginia Department of Energy, Spearhead Trails, the Appalachian Conservation Corps and The Nature Conservancy. The new campground and trail is part of the Dante community’s larger, ongoing effort to revitalize their downtown area, which now includes a museum and renovations to the old depot, while paying tribute to the community’s richly diverse cultural heritage.
The new recreation area builds on these efforts by providing cultural and historic context about the site through its use of historic markers. The stands and ballfield next to the campground date back to the early 1900s, a time when coal companies would bring in professional baseball players as entertainment for miners and their families, according to Wallace.
The new campground itself is located on the former site of the Arty Lee School, a historic regional Black school that closed when segregation ended in Virginia. The building had asbestos and was too far beyond repair to be salvaged as part of the project, and a marker was installed to commemorate the site’s important role in the community.
Faced with decisions about the future of the school, the community partnered with experts from Virginia Tech, who proposed the idea of creating an economic engine on the site of the former school that would build on Southwest Virginia’s growing commitment to eco-tourism and expansion of its trail network given the success of trails in nearby Saint Paul. As more community members and local leaders supported the project, the community was able to harness brownfields grants to pay for the demolition of the blighted school property.
Appalachian Voices Environmental Scientist Matt Hepler has been deeply involved in the project from the very beginning, serving as project manager and writing the original AMLER grant application for the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s Abandoned Mine Land Economic Revitalization Program. In conjunction, a brownfields grant was written by Carno, a consulting firm that helped connect the project with state and federal brownfields funding.
And just what is a brownfield grant? “Oh I love brownfields grants!” Hepler says. Brownfield sites are abandoned, idle, or underused industrial or commercial facilities or sites that are contaminated and pose environmental challenges. The goal of these grants is to convert contaminated sites into productive properties that are attractive and ready for redevelopment in order to revitalize communities and protect public health.
Hepler believes that Dante could serve as a model for other coalfield communities looking to spur economic growth while preserving the environment. Dante utilized a conceptual master plan developed by the Virginia Tech Community Design Assistance Center to help direct their vision. This shared community vision also allows the community to better utilize grant opportunities when they come along, and generally makes the community more competitive for applying to community development grant applications such as brownfields programs or AMLER.
“The Dante community association is taking ownership of their own economic development and revitalization,” Hepler says. “Working with them has truly been great.”
Similar to the state and federal brownfields programs, the federal AMLER program provides funding specifically for the clean-up of abandoned coal mining sites while returning these sites to productive economic use. AMLER funding was used in the construction of the new trails as well as the closing of two nearby mine portals.
Hepler explains that there are thousands of these open abandoned mine portals across Appalachia’s historic coal mining areas that can be dangerous if people go into them. Open mine portals represent serious safety concerns for community members in the area. The Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Program works to get many of them closed, but there are many that are still out there unreported.
By using AMLER and brownfields funding sources together, communities can clean up environmental hazards such as abandoned mining sites or dilapidated buildings while also driving innovative economic solutions led by the community.
Dante is a small, tight-knit community that, like many former coal mining towns in Appalachia, has seen its fair share of challenges. It’s also clearly a community that is loved, cherished and celebrated by the people who live there. The folks who live in Dante have done all of us who live in Southwest Virginia a service by showing us what the right mix of local, community-based commitment combined with the right funding model can do.
If their Appalachian spirit, work ethic and love of their community are any indication of what this community is capable of, more and more people will be learning where Dante is now!