VARNEY - After years of work, the Mingo County Air Transportation Park made a big step closer to completion Friday afternoon.

Officials and development partners celebrated the groundbreaking of the water/sewage holding tank infrastructure project Friday afternoon at the site at Oldfield Branch, near Varney, on WV Route 52/14, also known as Mystery Mountain Road.

"Today we are commemorating the start of construction. It's a long-awaited start of construction of the water line extension and the installation of a sewage holding tank," said Mingo County Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Leasha Johnson. "These critical infrastructure components are going to be necessary in readying this facility to provide much-needed economic diversification in Mingo County."

The $2.5 million infrastructure project is funded in part by a federal grant from the United States Economic Development Administration, with local matching funds provided by the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority and the Mingo County Commission.

"The airport opened officially in 2012, however there were years' worth of literally begging for federal money to extend water and sewage to this location," Johnson said. "We didn't meet traditional funding models because we didn't have any users, but we didn't have any users because we didn't have any infrastructure, so we were victim to the proverbial chicken and the egg scenario.

"Fortunately however in 2016, when the United States EDA through its economic adjustment program, identified and secured funds for assisting coal-impacted communities, we were able to finally qualify for the necessary funding to get started with the infrastructure project. So if it weren't for the support of people like Tracey Rowan and U.S. EDA and our friends at E.L. Robinson, we would have never been positioned to have accomplished this infrastructure project."

U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) delivered the keynote remarks at the Air Transportation Park, which pilots call the Appalachian Regional Airport.

"I think it was maybe a year and a half ago we met in Elkins where we announced the EDA awardees for this project and several other projects across the state," Capito said. "And I remember Leasha (Johnson), drove all the way up to Buckhannon because she was so excited what this could mean for Mingo County and this air transportation park."

The development is a public-private partnership among Alpha Natural Resources, the Federal Aviation Administration, the WV Department of Transportation's Aeronautics Commission, the MCRA and the MCAA.

During its surface mining activities, Alpha Natural Resources constructed the nearly 975-acre site in a configuration that was approved by the FAA and donated the site to Mingo County in April 2008.

"This is a happy day and a sad day, too, because this is a dream that Mike Whitt had," an teary-eyed Mingo County Commission President Diann Hannah said. "I was privileged to be on the front then with him in the development of the runway. He was not just a director, he was a hands-on guy, and I appreciate everything he did for Mingo County. I couldn't let today go by without giving him some credit, even though he isn't here with us."

Whitt was the executive director for the MCRA from 1990 to 2011 when he unexpectedly passed away at the age of 59. Whitt was also a member of the WV Economic Development Council, the Tug Valley Chamber of Commerce, the Williamson Memorial Hospital Board of Trustees and was one of three founders of the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System.

"I know your friend Mr. Whitt, we're closer to him up here than we were down in the valley so he's definitely listening to us" Senator Capito said to Hannah. "We certainly always want to remember those pioneers that always got us started."

The site has received more than $10 million worth of capital improvements for the construction of the runway, taxiway and installation of wind instrumentation, lighting, perimeter fencing, a fuel farm and new hangars.

Other speakers at the ceremony included Regional Coordinator for U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin Ali Mitchell, Deputy District Director for U.S. House of Representatives Congresswoman Carol Miller Kim McMillion, and Chairman of the MCRA Board of Directors Paul Pinson.

A barbecue picnic catered by Trail 12 Barbeque from Gilbert followed the groundbreaking ceremony.

Jarrid McCormick is a sports reporter for the Williamson Daily News. He can be reached by email at