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The wide swath of progress

I spent a good bit of time yesterday in my hometown, Beckley, WV. I hated Beckley growing up and was, to say the least, thrilled to leave it behind when the time finally came. Revisiting it again as an adult, I realize it really wasn't a bad place to grow up.

I lived in a little community called Pleasant Hills nestled between Mabscott and MacArthur. Pleasant Hills truly lives up to its name and is marked by gentle rolling hills and wooded areas. The land contains mostly residential property, open fields, and a scant handful of mom-and-pop businesses. There's enough evidence around for me to think it used to be farmland with a grain mill of some sort nearby. Within yards of my house were wild blueberries and blackberries, remnants of wheat fields, an abandoned well, a cow pasture, a farmhouse, and a beautiful barn which collapsed one day in the late 1990s.

The primary road through Pleasant Hills — Old Eccles Road — was, and I presume still is, patrolled heavily by the Mabscott Police Department enforcing the 30 MPH speed limit. One of their most often-used speed traps was directly across from my house. I always found that questionable, as our mailing address was Beckley and thus — in my opinion — outside the Mabscott jurisdiction. But whatever. Either way, it was a pretty safe community; the kind of place where you could leave your doors unlocked at night and not have any concerns about it.

Over the years, Pleasant Hills has changed a bit. Many of the trees lining Old Eccles Road have been cut down. The pastures have become overgrown and untended, and one of the wooded areas I remember has been timbered to make way for a new housing development. The berry bushes, already sparse when I was young, were picked over by the neighborhood boys I grew up with (myself included) — and the well I could see from my back porch was capped and removed before I finished grade school. I'll add that Old Eccles Road itself seems narrower than I remember, but I'm pretty sure my memory there has been fogged by the haze of time.

US 121Less than nine miles southwest lies the end of the new Coalfields Expressway, a four-lane road which will eventually extend through Mullens, Pineville, Welch, and Bradshaw, and terminate in Slate, VA (near Grundy). These are all tiny communities, Welch being the largest with about 2600 people. It's believed the Coalfields Expressway will breathe some life into Southern West Virginia in the form of jobs and industry. Anyone who's familiar with Southern West Virginia knows it was once a booming area rich from coal mining and the heavy equipment necessary for this dangerous job. I assume the hope is the boom times will return with the construction of this new highway.

Just outside of Welch, in Kimball, a Wal-Mart opened in October, 2005. And within the last few years, a Wal-Mart opened in MacArthur — very close to where I used to live. It took out an entire community of homes in the process, including one where some old friends of mine once lived. And while it looks like the Coalfields Expressway is avoiding the (relatively) more populated areas of Southern West Virginia and thus won't be disrupting too many lives with blatant home destruction, there are certain to be some disruptions, perhaps of another type.

I'd love to know how businesses in the Welch area have weathered the arrival of Wal-Mart. I can tell you how at least one business near the MacArthur Wal-Mart weathered its arrival — namely, Kroger Store #750 in Sophia. It's gone. The store is closed. I felt an affinity with that store — I worked there for a few years when I was in college, and in the process, met several interesting people, drew a weekly paycheck, and divined the basics of good financial management by paying off a small car loan.

It's going to be a lot easier for people in Pineville and Mullens to travel to Wal-Mart when this new road is completed. But I'm reminded of the movie Cars where the construction of I-40 all but wipes out the little town of Radiator Springs (and numerous others) on Route 66. I do appreciate what's being done here. I'm glad Southern West Virginia is getting a much-needed infrastructure upgrade. I'm just not sure how a four-lane highway is going to magically create jobs in this area, and I'm really not sure how many people are going to stop and visit the little towns along it — and thus, how much longer they'll really survive.

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