By Bill Archer
For The Register-Herald
An early morning jet aircraft cracked through the sky over the Mercer County Airport at about 7:15 a.m. Wednesday.
More traffic at the county airport was just one of the signs that the 2013 Bluefield Coal Show was underway.
This year marked the 20th biennial “Coal Show for Coal People” since the Greater Bluefield Chamber of Commerce started holding the shows at the National Guard Armory/Civic Center in Brushfork. With 240 exhibitors, and an estimated 5,000 visitors during the three-day show, the Bluefield show is one of the nation’s top regional coal shows.
The size of the show wasn’t a major problem in 1976 when the Bluefield chamber resurrected the old Southern Appalachian Region Industrial Exhibit that enjoyed a success from 1934 to 1956, but fizzled when it lost its focus on the coal industry, and took on a carnival atmosphere. When Charlie Peters of Peters Equipment agreed to be the general chairman, he did two things — he fought to bring a continuous miner to the 1976 show, and he insisted that the coal show be exclusively for people in the coal industry.
That simple formula paid huge dividends through the years. While other coal shows faded, the Bluefield show grew in its level of respect in the industry, becoming known as a “selling show,” where coal mining’s decision-makers conducted business, and where innovative coal mining machinery was put on display to a crowd of sophisticated visitors with a thorough knowledge of coal mining.
The growth presented challenges and the Chamber took a page from last year’s Las Vegas Show and started running shuttle buses from the Mitchell Stadium parking lot on Stadium Drive in Bluefield to the Coal Show. Based on traffic flow patterns on Wednesday, the experimental effort worked. “I took the shuttle bus here this morning, and it was convenient,” Dr. Marsha Krotseng, president of Bluefield State College said. During the ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2011, traffic was backed up from the armory/civic center to the BSC entrance.
George McGonagle, chairman of the board of the Greater Bluefield Chamber of Commerce welcomed a full house of people attending the traditional Media Appreciation Breakfast prior to the opening of the show with the singular observation that “more than 200 volunteers” come out to work at the show. He noted that the volunteers make the Bluefield show special.
Richard Riggs, a long-time soldier in the National Guard, who is now retired and pastoring a local church, asked the audience to observe a moment of silence to remember all those who lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001, as well as all the military personnel who have lost their lives since that day. “That’s one day that we’ll never forget,” Riggs said.
Frazier “Buddy” Miller, master of ceremonies at the breakfast, recalled how Kyle Hurt, then chairman of the chamber board, scrambled to get the 2001 Coal Show open. That show was set to open on Sept. 12, 2001. Miller praised the efforts of Peters for working to make the show a continued success. “Please give a round of applause for the chamber staff and all of the volunteers,” Miller said. “Thank you for all you do.”
Peters, 90, also thanked the volunteers, but also noted that the coal industry is facing major challenges. “We anticipate that the 2013 show is going to be one of the most important shows in history,” Peters said.
Travis Mollohan offered remarks on behalf of U.S. Senator Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and said that the nation “was built on the backs of a strong and diverse work force,” and praised the work of coal miners and the coal industry.
Bill Reid, editor/publisher of Coal News pointed out that the industry faces great challenges because of “President Obama’s war on coal,” and encouraged everyone attending the show to sign up for the “Count on Coal” movement. In introducing the keynote speaker, Reid called Bob Murray, “a great American.”
Robert “Bob” Murray, a 56-year coal industry veteran who is chairman, president and chief executive officer of Murray Energy, shared briefly that he and Peters worked together on the development of the North American Powhatan No. 3 Prep Plant, but then Murray gave a sobering report on the state of the U.S. coal industry, stating that “Central Appalachian coal production is now down 43 percent from 2008 levels,” and added that “during the first half of 2013, 151 more coal mines employing 2,658 workers were closed.”
Murray said that President Barack Obama’s actions “are a human issue to me, as I know the names of many of the Americans whose jobs and family livelihoods are being destroyed as he appeases his radical environmentalist, unionist, liberal elitist, Hollywood character and other constituents,” Murray said, then added of the Murray Energy Corp. coal miners who have lost their jobs: “These folks are my employees,” he said.
His remarks were filled with statistical data, including his statement that Central Appalachian coal production declined 21 percent in the 12-month period that ended on June 30. At the conclusion of his remarks, Murray said that his employees “only want to work in honor and dignity,” and added that “these people who only want to work, are prohibited from doing so and fall into the negative side of the economic ledger for the rest of their lives. This is not the America that I have always cherished.”
Murray then held up a sign that stated: “Save America Impeach Obama,” and asked people in the room if they wanted to be part of the effort.
The reaction to Murray’s presentation was varied. Gene Bailey pointed out that Murray “is a very passionate and out-spoken person,” whose comments were “on point.” Harold McBride, a McDowell County commissioner who worked as an electrician in the mines for more than 30 years, pointed out that the coal industry is hurting.
State Senator H. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, said that he wanted to check on Murray’s statistical data before commenting on the remarks, but added that if it is true, he will work with State Senator Bill Cole, R-Mercer, to make it part of the West Virginia senate record.
Cole called it “sobering,” and added “we need to pay heed to what he was talking about for our future,”
The Coal Show resumes today and will conclude on Friday.
— Bill Archer is a writer for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph