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Grafton: Town with a mine, but not yet a mining town

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PAM KASEY / The State Journal PAM KASEY / The State Journal
Uncle T’S Kitchen in downtown Grafton is celebrating one year in business. But the popular Grafton 123 House of Coffee is closed and doesn’t sell, even at a reduced asking price. Uncle T’S Kitchen in downtown Grafton is celebrating one year in business. But the popular Grafton 123 House of Coffee is closed and doesn’t sell, even at a reduced asking price.
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GRAFTON, WV -

The devastation of a community when a coal mine closes is an all-too-familiar story in West Virginia.

What happens in the opposite situation — when a community gets a first big mine? 

Grafton, seat of Taylor County, is a rare case in point.

The former railroad town is just a little off the beaten path, with its once and potentially again charming downtown lying just south of U.S. Route 50 about 15 miles east of Interstate 79. 

It was a major hub for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad for a century but, by the 1980s, a post-war decline in coal shipments and competition from other railroads and highways drained that vitality.  

Grafton languished.

Then, in 2008, International Coal Group received a permit for its Tygart No. 1 longwall mine near Taylor County's recreational gem, Tygart Lake. 

Arch Coal acquired the in-development mine when it bought ICG in June 2011 and, with continued development, pulled the first coal out of the ground in November 2011. 

A year and a half later, the mine — renamed Leer after former Arch CEO Steven Leer — employs more than 350. It stands to grow further when full production is in place in the fourth quarter of this year. 

Downtown Grafton is just a few miles from the mine. Quiet in recent decades but still grand in its major structures — a large post office, a lovingly rehabilitated B&O railroad station and a six-story, century-old hotel — the town is ready for resurgence. 

It's Good …

The housing market is brisk. An influx of some mine employees has followed earlier waves of workers from the construction phase of the mine, gas industry workers and, earlier still, workers on the Trans-Allegheny Interstate Transmission Line that Allegheny Energy built through the area in 2010. 

"We don't have any rentals (available) and it's like a madhouse in here all the time," said a woman who spoke for New Ray Realty in Grafton but did not want to give her name. 

"It used to be that we'd get a vacancy and it might take 30 days to fill it. Now it takes 30 minutes," she said. New Ray is not a brokerage, but it rents out about 50 units it owns, most of them in Grafton, and also has bought and sold two houses this year, she said.

One developer is starting construction on three new $200,000 homes in town next month, according to City Manager Kevin Stead, and the local hotel has been full for the past two years. 

"And some of the workers bring RVs, fifth wheels and stay here during the week," Stead said. "We're also having the boom of Marcellus Shale so it's hard to say (what anyone is here for)."

Arch and its contractors have brought new business to some shops and restaurants.

"I've done booklets for them, I've done forms, I've done tags, stuff I wouldn't have done if they weren't in town," said Sally Pickens, owner of Main Street Printers. "The employees do faxes and copies, so my foot traffic has improved from the mine." 

Long-time local entrepreneur Howard Gaines, owner of Gourmet Express restaurant on Route 50, said he's had some business from the mine.

"They call us and we feed them about twice a month when the (executives) fly in," he said. "And whenever they have their safety trainings. We would like to think some of the workers are coming and eating with us, but I don't know. We didn't pick up a bunch of business but we really haven't slowed down either."

Perhaps the most enthusiastic among the proprietors in Grafton is John Snyder, owner of Frey's Auto Supply. Snyder was approached early on by Arch contractors who did infrastructure development at the mine, and he's had a good experience.

"We're just a mom and pop place," Snyder said of the shop he bought in 1989. 

"We just try to out-service, find places where we can do something that the other guys either choose not to do or don't know how to do." 

Frey's did its usual vehicle maintenance and parts supply work for the contractors, but also met unexpected needs — 60 bales of hay once, for example, and large containers for water another time — and ordered anything from anywhere, sometimes on a next-day basis.

Snyder employed three or four before the mine, and he now employs about six, and made connections that have carried over into new business independent of the mine.

"I think the mine has had a positive impact and I think it's going to have a really greater positive impact once they become fully operational out here," he said. 

... Though Not Yet Great

Main Street is freshly paved and sports new streetscaping and fresh, colorful plantings. 

Still, downtown struggles with empty storefronts. A lot of them.

"We really haven't seen much new business start up, and I'm really surprised," Stead said. "We're all surprised."

In fact, the successful bakery and restaurant Grafton 123 House of Coffee closed down in June 2012 — suddenly, from the looks of its Facebook posts. One downtown business person said she'd heard it was out of unhappiness with a coal mine going in, and another speculated about family or money problems. 

The owners have reduced their asking price. The business was thriving when it closed, yet it hasn't sold. 

"I don't know why downtown struggles," Gaines said. "A lot of people are scared to invest money in a little town that's only got 6,000 people. I'd like to add on to my restaurant, but I get nervous."

Coming From Anywhere

Maybe it's because, as a large company doing business globally, Arch can source its needs from anywhere.

"They haven't bought much here," said John McDaniel, owner of Taylor County Supply hardware store. 

"I deal in U.S.A. (-made steel) pipe. I guess it's too high compared with Chinese pipe. I sold them a little bit but they've never bought anything since."

Frey's has done some work on Leer mine vehicles, "but a lot of their stuff other than vehicle repair is purchased regionally," Snyder said, adding that he thinks that could change over time. 

Maybe it's because such a large company can bring workers in from elsewhere. 

Leer has brought two-thirds of its employees from other Arch mines that have been idled or mined out — keeping miners from elsewhere employed, but reducing the positive local impact.  

Leer President and General Manager Scott Boylen said employees come to work from more than 30 counties. Some stay over during the week, as Stead said, but it leaves Grafton feeling more like a town with a mine than a mining town. 

Maybe it just takes time.

Leer has a design life of about 15 years, and it represents one-quarter to one-third of Arch's reserve base in the local area. If two other planned mines ran in succession, the economic impact on Taylor County could go on for 50 years, according to Boylen; shorter, but more intensely, if they run simultaneously.