GRAFTON, W.Va. -- The housing business is booming in Grafton, but many storefronts remain empty and some local business owners say they're still waiting to feel the economic impact of a 2-year-old coal mine.
They're hoping it will grow as the Leer Mining Complex ramps up toward full production by year's end.
But right now, some residents say Grafton is a town with a mine-not a mining town.
The local hotel has been full for the past two years, and City Manager Kevin Stead says one developer is starting construction in June on three new $200,000 homes.
"And some of the workers bring RVs, fifth wheels and stay here during the week," he tells The State Journal (http://bit.ly/13NsTlj).
Downtown Grafton is just a few miles away from the new mine, with a large post office, a restored B&O railroad station and a six-story, century-old hotel ready for the customers that local business owners hope are coming.
Grafton once a major hub for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, by the 1980s, the coal industry was declining and the town's vitality vanished.
It languished until five years ago, when International Coal Group got permission to start the Tygart No. 1 longwall mine. St. Louis-based Arch Coal took over the mine when it bought ICG in 2011, renaming it the Leer Mining Complex.
Coal started coming out in November 2011, but things are still ramping up. The prep plant is operating at only a quarter of its capacity, and none of the coal is yet under contract.
President Scott Boylen said Leer will mainly produce metallurgical coal used in steel production, but about 10 percent will be steam coal for power plants.
He expects the mine to produce as much as 3.5 million tons per year when fully operational.
About 350 people are employed now, and that could increase by the fourth quarter.
John Snyder, owner of Frey's Auto Supply since 1989, landed some work from the mine, such as vehicle maintenance and parts supply. He's even delivered large water containers and hay bales.
The business has been enough to hire two workers.
But John McDaniel, owner of Taylor County Supply, says Arch seems to buying its materials elsewhere.
"I deal in U.S.A. pipe," he said, meaning it's domestically produced. "I guess it's too high compared with Chinese pipe. I sold them a little bit but they've never bought anything since."
Howard Gaines, owner of Gourmet Express restaurant on Route 50, said Leer and its contractors have brought him some new business, including meals for safety trainings and for the executives who fly in twice a month.
But he can't explain why the downtown is still struggling.
"A lot of people are scared to invest money in a little town that's only got 6,000 people," he said. "I'd like to add on to my restaurant, but I get nervous."
With good reason.
About two-thirds of the Leer mine's employees transferred from other Arch operations that shut down, Boylen said.
That means they have jobs but often live elsewhere. Some commute. Like gas industry workers, others stay during the week then go home.
"We really haven't seen much new business start up," the city manager said, "and I'm really surprised. We're all surprised."