For centuries, West Virginians have gone into the earth and mined coal as their contribution to fueling the United States' future.
In the wake of Murray Energy, the country's largest private coal company, filing bankruptcy on Tuesday, Raleigh County Memorial Airport Manager Tom Cochran is pushing southern West Virginia toward the sky and a new horizon.
Cochran has a vision of bringing aerospace jobs to Raleigh County, and he is nearing his goal as officials from government and educational sectors gather on Monday to announce a new AEROReady certification for Raleigh County Memorial Airport and the seven-county region of Raleigh, Summers, Fayette, Nicholas, Mercer, McDowell and Wyoming counties.
New River Gorge Regional Development Authority Executive Director Joe Brouse said that the designation certifies that labor, development sites, customization of labor training and infrastructure are in place to support the aerospace industry.
"There were hundreds of site criteria items analyzed, but one of the most crucial was the availability of adequate infrastructure to support the aviation industry," Brouse stated in a press release on Wednesday.
For several years, Cochran has been on a mission to develop 67 acres at the airport on Industrial Drive. The aerospace idea came about recently but quickly took wing and gained momentum.
"It's one of the best things that could've happened to us," Cochran reacted to the news on Thursday. "This is big."
The project is still in what Cochran calls the "proactive" stage. Cochran and community partners are cautiously moving forward and plan to simultaneously market the project and secure funds. The goal is to build a $7 million site-ready facility on 67 acres at the airport within the next year.
The idea came earlier this year after NRGRDA commissioned a consultant, InSite Consulting, to study potential site readiness in the New River Gorge region in West Virginia. Cochran said they looked at the acreage for development at the airport as part of the study.
"They were telling us, 'Yes, you all have sites, but they're not ready. They're nothing but dirt and trees,'" reported Cochran.
Jina Belcher, deputy director at NRGRDA, said the site assessment was eye-opening for NRGRDA.
"For years, we’ve assumed we knew what companies were looking for in order to locate to the region but, clearly, we had no idea what we were missing.” said Belcher. “The Raleigh County Airport Industrial Park has the most attractive potential for development and we’re thrilled to be working with Tom to highlight the Airport’s assets and growth potential.”
InSite notified NRGRDA and Cochran that their site would be turned down by potential businesses as a viable location because companies wanted a flat site with adequate utilities.
Shortly after, NRGRDA and airport officials were offered an opportunity to be party to the AEROReady study conducted by AEP and its aerospace consulting firm, Tucson & Roberts.
Cochran said the idea of aerospace jobs seemed a perfect fit for the runway-ready property at Raleigh County Airport Industrial Park, just as it fit a place like southern West Virginia, where the mining industry has taken a hit.
The Federal Aviation Administration reported in 2017 that every major airline was suffering from a shortage of trained pilots, with a 30 percent decline from 30 years ago. Meanwhile, the number of passengers increased, creating a need and an opportunity for a region which was looking for a new industry.
"This is something wide open to the world, so to speak," Cochran said. "There's major shortages of pilots, mechanics, engineers, and it's a broad, open, rich industry across our country."
Tucson & Roberts certified other airports in the surrounding area, including the Beckley and Greenbrier Valley airports, as "AEROReady."
"We're in a position where we're able to accept aerospace industry opportunities," Cochran explained.
Various sectors of the local community are drawing together to develop the acreage and to invest in the future of the region.
Cochran reported Thursday that, with approval from Gov. Jim Justice and the West Virginia Secretary of Commerce's Office, leaders of the effort aim to secure $3 million in state funds to prepare a local site that can accommodate aviation manufacturing and maintenance companies.
NRGRDA, Region One Planning and Development Council, Raleigh County Commission, the Raleigh County Memorial Airport Authority and the federal Economic Development Administration have also made commitments to help fund site development.
"We'll be marketing it to any manufacturing company that does aviation manufacturing or any component parts," Cochran said. "It can be a maintenance facility, and this site is going to be large enough that we could have part manufacturing and maintenance, also."
Workforce development is key to success. Cochran believes the same spirit that built America from the ground up is still alive in West Virginia and that it will propel the aerospace economy.
Early in 2020, NRGRDA plans to submit a request for funding through the Appalachian Regional Commission’s POWER initiative that will help fund training of displaced coal miners and others to work in the aerospace industry. An eastern Kentucky school will partner with local educators to develop a training program for air frame and power plant technicians, Belcher reported.
"We're going to be training them. We're going to be partnering with NRCTC and WVU Tech to do this training project with the technicians," said Cochran, adding that the institutions will allow students to pursue a four-year degree in their field that will incorporate two years of technical training.
"They're wanting to work and be in the engineering field in aerospace," said Cochran.
The aerospace industry is a new frontier for the region's economy, and Cochran said he is eager to begin construction on the acreage. He said that with dedication, construction could start this summer and would be a powerful marketing tool to aerospace companies.
"This takes at least 10 months to get all the permits," he explained. "If we do those things through the winter, we're going to be throwing dirt next spring.
"We need to be going to aviation companies and the whole industry to market ourselves right now," he said. "We can go and show the pictures of us cutting trees and throwing the dirt I'm talking about."
Cochran has pursued development of the wild, wonderful parcel at the airport for years, working with federal, state and local lawmakers to get the site ready for businesses.
"It's the idea of being proactive, of what we're trying to accomplish to develop this airport."
Brouse reported that NRGRDA, AEP, Cochran, Mercer County Economic Development Authority, McDowell County Economic Development Authority, and Wyoming County Economic Development Authority will be holding a public event at the Raleigh County Memorial Airport on Monday, Nov. 4, at 3 p.m., to announce the AEROready certification.
"We greatly appreciate the partnership of Appalachian Power Company in this process," Brouse said.