By Derek Tyson, The Welch News Editor
KIMBALL, W.Va. – Yesterday officials gathered at Ya’Sou Restaurant in Kimball to celebrate a multi-structure demolition project currently unfolding in Kimball.
Out of 67 identified abandoned structures, 15 were selected for the project. Randall Patton, Chairman of the McDowell County Solid Waste Authority (SWA), said the project’s start can be traced back to August last year.
“The SWA ran lead on this and we approached the County Commission,” said Patton. “Since no one down here had a lot of money, we thought we could pool our resources to do something with demolition. I feel that demolition should be the number one priority in the County.”
The project was a culmination of various agencies working together, including the Town of Kimball, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Lusk Disposal, Copper Ridge Landfill, the McDowell County Commission and the SWA.
“When I approached Kimball, Mayor Adam Gianato said ‘We don’t have enough money.’ I told them they didn’t need that because they would have the hardest job: identifying the properties.”
Dennis Stottlemyer, Deputy Environmental Advocate for the WV DEP, oversees the agency’s Rehabilitation and Environmental Action (REAP) program, now assisting Kimball with the demolition project.
“Dilapidated and abandoned structures are a statewide problem, but there’s a pretty good concentration of them here in McDowell County,” said Stottlemyer. “They’re a safety hazard, an environmental hazard, a health hazard, and a hindrance to redevelopment.”
Stottlemyer said the REAP programs mandate was to clean up solid waste across the State.
“This is a heavy lift, you see the heavy equipment and dump trucks out there,” said Stottlemyer. “This isn’t stuff you put in a garbage bag and sling in the back of the truck. It takes a lot of people to get it right.”
Kimball Mayor Adam Gianato said Patton had warned him at the beginning that the project would take time and a lot of work.
“But with the cooperation between the County Commission, the SWA, the Town of Kimball and the Fire Department, we mapped all of this over a year and it’s turned into a pretty successful project,” said Gianato. “Although we’ve only torn down 2 so far, we’re making progress and moving. It’s better than what we had to begin with.”
Clearing of the old structures would allow room for future development, increased property values and beautification for Kimball.
Senator Chandler Swope also attended yesterday’s meeting, saying he was there to celebrate the beginning of a program near and dear to his heart.
“Two years ago, I was asked by the DEP to help clean up McDowell County because they had been trying for years to make progress,” said Swope. “I’m from McDowell County so I jumped onboard immediately.”
As a Senator looking at solid waste, water, sewer, broadband and many other issues across the State, Swope said demolition of abandoned properties rose to the top as the area where the least amount of funding could make the greatest impact.
“I started getting information from the County and local residents about how many abandoned properties were in McDowell County,” said Swope. “The low number is 5,000, the high number is 8,000. That’s a big job.”
Swope approached the Governor about creating a program to help fund county and city demolition projects.
“He said he would assign the National Guard to it, who were dealing with flood cleanup at the time,” said Swope. “A year went by and nothing happened.”
Swope called on federal representatives Captio, Manchin and Miller, urging the need for funding for the demolition program.
“To put it into perspective, I asked the County Commission last year how many houses they were going to clean up that year,” said Swope. “They were hoping for 30. I got my calculator out and said ‘Congratulations, you’ll be done in 166 years, at the low number.”
Swope said he also urged the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) about the need for funding for demolition projects. Later, the ARC announced that such a program now existed.
Returning to the Governor a year later, Swope said he was worked alongside the DEP for years and thought they were the logical ones to take on this solid waste issue.
“He said ‘Great, go for it,’” said Swope.
Another effort from Senator Swope was Senate Bill 265 to create the demolition program.
“It didn’t have any specific funding earmarked so I wasn’t competing with any of the other needs in the State,” said Swope. “It ran through the Senate in a heartbeat, 3 minutes in each committee with no discussion and 100% unanimous vote.”
Moving on the House of Delegates, the bill died in the House Finance Committee’s hands. Swope had set meetings up recently to follow up on the issue, but those were sidelined as well, this time by the Coronavirus.
Swope said he plans to reintroduce the bill again in the future, stating that no community in West Virginia is not affected by dilapidated structures.
“All of us legislators think of thousands of things to help West Virginia, but this was one that I’ve recognized myself and taken it on as my number one mission.”
Commissioner Michael Brooks echoed Swope’s remarks, saying funding was the biggest barrier to more projects of a similar nature popping up across McDowell County.
“I’ve said it for years, we try to do as much as we can with what we have to work with on the County level, but this problem is much bigger than we are,” said Brooks. “We desperately need more help on a state and federal level. We don’t need any more studies, we’ve been studied to death.”
Brooks said the funding would create a ripple affect for many vendors across the County.
“Because of the nature of our industry, so many people have their own excavators, trucks, that it would help them in a bad economy,” said Brooks.
Brooks praised Stottlemyer as an unsung hero of McDowell County and Patton for bringing everyone together and staying focused.
“There can be so many irons in the fire at one time, it’s easy to lose that focus,” said Brooks.