Brandon Dennison, WV Living’s inaugural West Virginian of the Year, sees what West Virginia is really missing. And it’s not just jobs and education.
When Brandon Dennison’s car pulls up to the old Corbin Ltd. factory on Huntington’s West End, he finds a crew of employees on a scissor lift installing a sign above a basement door. The sign, which reads “Business Development Center,” should have been installed the day before. Reporters and city leaders will arrive in just over an hour for a ribbon cutting ceremony. But it’s not a big deal. Dennison’s company, Coalfield Development Corporation, is a flexible organism. If something needs to be done, they just do it.
After a quick chat with the sign crew, Dennison makes a check of the business center. Crew members—that’s what Coalfield calls its employees—have moved some old church pews into the space for the press conference. Check. There’s a simple lectern up front with a vinyl banner against the wall. Looks good. To the side, a folding table with cardboard jugs of coffee and sheetcake for attendees. Chocolate and white cake. Check.
Pleased with the setup, Dennison continues his walkabout. He pokes his head in the bathroom around the corner. It still needs to be cleaned before the press conference. He asks Ryan Stoner, Coalfield’s director of personal development, to handle it. “There’s some gloves upstairs,” he tells Stoner. “You’ll want some gloves.” Dennison is already headed up the stairs. One gets the sense he would have cleaned the bathroom himself, if he were not being followed by a reporter.
Passing through the factory’s second floor, Dennison points out future uses for different sections of the building. See the hole where the hardwood floor was removed? That was torn up as part of Coalfield’s Reclaim Appalachia enterprise, which sells salvaged construction materials to interior designers seeking a rustic look—now Coalfield will use that expanded headroom to put a black box theater on the ground floor.
Feet away from the gaping hole, the company is planning an “artisan village” where glassblowers, metalworkers, and the like will set up cubicles to make and sell their wares. Hang a right and you’ll find a space that will be rented out for art exhibitions, conferences, wedding receptions, and any other event that needs a huge open area.
Dennison crosses the concrete floor toward the back of the building, home of Saw’s Edge Woodshop, part of his company’s Rediscover Appalachia enterprise. The sawdusted space is usually filled with the whine of power tools, but crew members are on break so the shop is deserted and quiet. He pauses to appreciate a wall hanging of intricately cut wood and glass. It’s a new design by one of the crew members that, like many of the pieces produced here, features the outline of West Virginia.
Out the back door of the shop, Dennison finds Christopher Scarberry and another crew member working to fix the wood shop’s exhaust fan. Scarberry climbs off his ladder to tell the boss about the house he just purchased. They commiserate for a moment on the joys of mortgage payments before Scarberry goes back to work and Dennison continues his rounds. “This is the first place I’ve ever worked where the higher-up people actually care how you’re doing,” Scarberry says later.
Dennison points out the practice roof where crew members with Coalfield’s Rewire Appalachia enterprise learn to install solar panels. Nearby, there is a high tunnel where crew members with the Refresh Appalachia enterprise grow vegetables that are sold through farmers’ markets, food distributors, and a consumer-supported agriculture program. Back inside the factory and through a couple doors, Dennison steps into a humid room filled with grow lights and aquaponic tubs. This is where Refresh Appalachia grows the microgreens it sells to chefs around Huntington. The West Edge location is just one of the enterprise’s eight agricultural facilities, which are spread throughout Cabell, Lincoln, Mingo, and Wayne counties. Some are located on former strip mine sites.
It is now almost time for the ribbon cutting. Dennison heads back downstairs for a few final preparations. The press conference will feature Huntington Mayor Steve Williams and Jason Moses of the Moses Auto Group, which donated $20,000 to open the business center. But Dennison will speak first.
After welcoming attendees, he offers a quick recap of the factory’s recent history. He recalls for everyone how, after Corbin left town, the 93,000-square-foot warehouse became a haven for drug addicts, homeless people, scrap metal scavengers, and rabid dogs. The building that once held the community together began to tear it apart.
Coalfield purchased the building in 2014—for $1 per square foot, if that tells you anything—and began moving its various enterprises into the space. After just one year, police calls to the neighborhood dropped by 42 percent. Banks estimated property values rose by 12 percent.
Dennison told how the business center where attendees were now sitting was once filled with derelict offices and mounds of dirt. “Our crew members would not work down here alone,” he says. “There was a de facto buddy system, it was so creepy.” Now, the space had two clients ready to move their own businesses into the remodeled space.
He ends his comments with a few thoughts about what it takes to start a business. ”Entrepreneurs are unique individuals in the head,” he says. “Instead of saying ‘I have a goal’ and making a list of all the things they need to make it happen, the entrepreneur says ‘I have a goal. What do I have right now to realize those goals?’”
Dennison was referring to the business center’s tenants. But, whether he realized it or not, he was also describing the philosophy that drives the Coalfield Development Corporation.
Since its inception just over six years ago, Dennison’s company has been taking things readily available in Appalachia—like old strip mines, abandoned factories, and out-of-work people—and using them toward a common goal: creating a new economy for West Virginia.
More than Charity
Randy Tremba used to hold a meeting every Tuesday morning when he was pastor of Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church. It was a way to assess the successes and failures of the previous Sunday’s service and begin to think about the coming Sunday: which hymns would be sung, which scripture would be read, and how the passage might intersect with congregants’ lives.
Tremba was the kind of leader who liked hearing other people’s opinions and insights, so he always pulled a small group of church members into these meetings. Some attendees rotated in and out but, between 2004 and 2009, two people were always there: Ethel Hornbeck, the church’s director of spiritual formation, and Brandon Dennison, then an undergrad at Shepherd University.
Tremba remembers Dennison “just showed up” one day in the fall of 2004. He had attended a Presbyterian church growing up in Huntington and was looking for a congregation to attend while in school. He asked Tremba for an appointment so he could learn more about the church. “He wasn’t a typical 18 year old,” Tremba says. “I instantly sensed he was a gifted young man.”
Tremba made Dennison the director of the church’s youth program. Dennison connected with the kids quickly, especially since most of them weren’t much younger than himself. He sat with them in the balcony during services, led them on nature hikes, took them to stock car races, and made a point to attend their sports games. “They thought he was cool, so he made church cool,” Tremba says.
The youth group also did frequent service projects, in keeping with the church’s commitment to social justice. Dennison took his kids on weekend mission trips to Washington, D.C., where they worked in soup kitchens and cleaned apartments for the needy. In 2008, 20 teenagers and four chaperones from Shepherdstown Presbyterian spent a week at the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Arizona. The volunteers were split into two groups, which alternated between repairing homes and spending time with the children at the reservation’s daycare facility. Dennison gathered everyone at the end of every day to talk about their experiences. “It was a huge wake-up call for all of us, especially the young people who have it pretty good,” says Melinda Schmitt, a youth group mother who chaperoned the Arizona trip.
Dennison was coming to his own realization: “I had this nagging sense that none of these places were my place in the world.”
A few years later, Schmitt chaperoned another mission trip with Dennison. This time the church headed to Mingo County. “There were holes in roofs. Holes in floors,” she says. Just like in Arizona, Dennison gathered the youth group each night to talk about their experiences. Schmitt says many were shocked to see these living conditions in their home state.
“As we were working, these two guys came walking down the road with tool belts on their shoulders,” Dennison says. They stopped and asked if the crew was hiring. When Dennison replied no, they were just a volunteer group, the men with the toolbelts walked on.
“In the moment it wasn’t a big deal. But reflecting on that, I felt it symbolized the whole deal in southern West Virginia. You’ve got people who have skills, have agency, and want to work. The problem is not with the people. But because it’s such a depressed area, you don’t have anywhere to apply that gumption.”
It was a problem all the mission trips in the world couldn’t fix. “I have so much respect for people who run food banks. I’m not demeaning that at all. But all the food banks in the world are not going to move West Virginia to its full potential,” Dennison says. “How do we get to where we don’t need them?
“If there’s all this work that needs to be done, why not create jobs locally so people can get paid to do that?”
More than Jobs
In the summer of 2011, Dennison was interning at the Wayne County Housing Authority as part of his master’s program at Indiana University’s specialized nonprofit management program. One day, he met his longtime friend Chase Thomas for lunch at Applebee’s at the Huntington Mall.
The two were just supposed to catch up. But while they ate, Dennison began laying out his idea for a not-for-profit business that would rehabilitate housing and salvage building supplies from structures that can’t be rehabilitated. The organization would hire local people to do the work and, since it would generate revenue just like any other construction business, would not have to rely as much on grants from government agencies and foundations.
Dennison also wanted to offer employees college classes and pay them stipends for their hours in the classroom. With all these pieces together, the company could improve the housing stock for low-income families, inject money into the local economy, and create a well-trained, well-educated workforce.
Dennison figured he could handle the administrative side of things. But he lacked the technical skills to manage a construction site. He needed a foreman, but it had to be someone would understood the goals of the organization.
“It’s like he was wrestling in his mind, does this person exist?” Thomas says. “I don’t know if he was speaking to me, but he said, ‘I’ve gotta have a foreman.’ I had the sense to say, ‘I would be interested in that.’”
Thomas had been working for a Charleston engineering firm for two years and was making good money, especially for a single guy with no real responsibilities. But he wasn’t satisfied. “I was at the point, this is too comfortable,” he says. “I want to use my talents for the greater good.”
There was just one problem. Thomas would need a general contractor’s license before the company could take on any jobs. And while he understood the math and knew how to run a saw and swing a hammer, he didn’t know how to run a construction site.
This did not worry Dennison. “He could really bring out your positivity and talent,” Thomas says. Dennison connected Thomas with Almost Heaven Habitat for Humanity in Pendleton County, where he spent three months learning to manage a construction project.
Just a month after Thomas finished his apprenticeship in February 2012, Coalfield Development Corporation hired its first crew. It was rough going at first. The company had landed a job demolishing flooded houses in Spring Valley. “We all have our new tools and they’re just looking at me. That’s when it all just set in.” Thomas says.
Dennison and Thomas expected some of their employees, many of whom came from backgrounds of generational poverty, would have trouble with “soft skills” like showing up to work on time and maintaining a strong work ethic. “It was believing a little bit of the stereotype of Appalachia,” Thomas says. For the most part, they were wrong. “We were shocked—positively—by the work. Every single crew member beat us there on the first day. They were the hardest-working people I’ve ever met in my life.”
But there were other challenges they never expected. One crew member was living with his wife and daughter in an extended family member’s basement. “He acted like he had struck gold,” Thomas says. Then, without warning, they got kicked out. Even though it would mean throwing away the chance for a college degree, the crew member felt he had to quit Coalfield and try to find a job with better pay. It took a while, but Thomas and Dennison were able to convince him to stay.
Another early crew member jumped from one tumultuous relationship to another, and the drama spilled over into his work life. “When he was having a high moment, he was an incredible crew member,” Thomas says. But when things went bad, he lashed out, disrespected his co-workers, and missed work.
Most companies would fire an employee for acting that way. But Coalfield wanted to help crew members overcome these attitudes. “We came to understand … it was the personal stuff that got in the way of their success,” Dennison says. “They were plenty smart. They were plenty hardworking. It was just all those life challenges. That’s what was really getting in the way of people reaching their full potential.”
Dennison and Thomas realized giving people jobs and sending them to college wasn’t enough to break the cycle of poverty. Coalfield had to find a way to incorporate life skills into its program.
The 33-6-3 Model
As of December 2017, Coalfield has created more than 100 new jobs, including more than 70 in its five enterprises spread across five West Virginia counties. Workers have obtained at least 250 professional certifications and revitalized more than 175,000 square feet of abandoned property. The company’s efforts have led to the formation of 16 new businesses in southern West Virginia: the five entreprises, its Trout’s Hill Coffee & Cafe in Wayne, and 10 new businesses Coalfield seed-funded at its inaugural WV Good Jobs Conference in November.
Those metrics are impressive. They’re also easy to measure. But Coalfield is having an effect on the state that is much more difficult to quantify.
Although each of the company’s enterprises has a different focus, they are each bound together by the 33-6-3 model. Each crew member spends 33 hours on the job each week and six hours in the classroom working toward a college degree. But Dennison says it’s those last three hours—the ones devoted to life skills mentorship—that have become the most important.
For two weeks each month, Coalfield’s 12 crews begin each day with a life skills lesson. Each week focuses on a different professional or personal principle, and each principle is embodied by a notable West Virginian. Crew members learn about good decisionmaking by studying Bluefield-born mathematician John Nash and his contributions to game theory. They learn about problem solving through Michael Owens, who invented machines to automate the production of glass bottles. Coalfield teaches crew members about grit through the story of Robert C. Byrd, who earned two college degrees while serving in the U.S. Congress.
Crew members write journal entries about these principles. Then, at the end of the work day, they’re given time to reflect. “We don’t want to tell anybody how to live their life. But we do want to create the space for thoughtful reflection, which is a gift in our chaotic times,” Dennison says.
Then, on the third week of each month, crew members get a break from the journals to complete a “shared experience” connected with the themes they’ve been studying. When they learned about focus, crew chiefs took their workers skeet shooting. When the theme was long-view decisionmaking, everyone learned to play chess and had a tournament.
Dennison says many crew members initially dread the life skills portion of Coalfield’s program. But eventually, most come to appreciate it. “One journal prompt is not going to change a mindset. But over time it creates a mindset,” he says. “It’s kind of become the crucial element.”
Josh Napier was on Coalfield’s first crew. He attended Marshall University after high school, aiming to become a math teacher. But then his girlfriend thought she was pregnant, so Napier left school to get a full-time job. He got his underground mining certification, but this was 2011. “I tried to get a job at the mines right as they were all shutting down.” He ended up working at a fast food restaurant.
Then one day his high school construction teacher called and told him about Coalfield Development Corporation. When Napier learned he’d be able to work, get paid, and get a degree, he was all in. He enjoyed the deconstruction work and excelled in the classroom, even tutoring his fellow crew members. But he was skeptical about the company’s life skills curriculum. “At first I was like, ‘Why are we doing this?’ I didn’t understand people trying to get involved in my personal life.”
At the same time, Napier recognized that his upbringing had left him with habits that stood in the way of future success. “I grew up living off food stamps. I lived with my grandmother and she didn’t have enough money to afford to buy us anything. When it came Christmastime, we got very little.” When Napier started working and making his own money, “I went and bought the things I wanted.” And more often than not, those spending habits left him broke.
This was in the early days, before Coalfield had developed its full life skills curriculum. The company was small enough back then that Dennison and Thomas spent an hour each week just talking with crew members about their lives. When they recognized Napier’s bad habits with money, they brought in a financial adviser to offer money management classes and helped him establish a savings account.
Napier says the classes were life-changing. He learned to prioritize his needs over his wants, start thinking long-term about his finances, and begin to build his family’s financial future.
This is what those impressive numbers can’t convey. Forget the jobs created, revenue generated, and college degrees earned. Coalfield’s biggest impact on West Virginia’s economy is the well-rounded, productive citizens its life skills mentorship curriculum is producing.
At the center of it all is Dennison—the enterprising Presbyterian with a heart for people and a mind for business, changing lives with a company built from scrap wood, derelict factories, and downcast people the rest of society has forgotten. “I don’t think I’ve met anybody else that can have a vision in the worst situation you can imagine,” Thomas says.
“He sees something different than what we see.”