When Conesville Power Plant closed in 2020, it was like a death in this rural area in east-central Ohio, but there was no funeral.
On Friday, the coal-fired plant that operated for more than half a century will get a proper goodbye in the form of a community theater and art project performed in Coshocton, Ohio.
The purpose of the outdoor play, titled “Calling Hours,” is to provide closure for the community and help residents make sense of the varied emotions when a local landmark—a major employer and also a major polluter—reaches the end of its life.
“There was a real sense of loss and a real sense of grief,” said Tom Dugdale, a theater professor at Ohio State University who helped to put the project together.
He sees the play as a way for people in the community to work through their emotions, and for people outside of the community to get a better understanding of how the clean energy transition looks for those who are most directly affected by it.
The power plant opened in 1957 in the village of Conesville, just west of the county seat of Coshocton. At its peak, the plant had about 600 employees and six generating units with a total capacity of more than 2,100 megawatts.
The owner at the time of the closing was the utility American Electric Power. The company had tried to sell the plant, but couldn’t find a buyer. The plant had high operational costs, which made its power expensive compared to those that run on natural gas, wind and solar.
The play was written by Anne Cornell, a longtime local resident and artistic director of the Pomerene Center for the Arts in Coshocton. Drawing from oral histories of the plant that were gathered by Ohio State students and faculty, Cornell wrote a series of monologues or eulogies, each from the perspective of a local person.
“You could be up to 30 or 40 miles away at certain points when you saw those stacks,” said a monologue from the perspective of a man in his 80s who was born and raised in Conesville. “Even my 3-year-old great grandson, when he’d see your stacks, he’s like, ‘Oh, that’s home!’ That strikes close. I think that’s what we all look forward to in our daily lives—getting home.”
The plant gave the community high-paying jobs, but it also brought the constant sound of trains delivering coal, and left behind coal ash that used to float through the air and put little holes in clothes hung out to dry.
“The company hung buckets in town to collect the ash—’data’ they called it,” the man said about the plant’s early days. “Seems pretty darn primitive now.”
This is one of many examples of how the play is clear-eyed about the harm caused by the plant.
The play includes live music and giant video projections along with the eulogies, which will take place in a park along Coshocton’s Main Street. The projections consist of coal-drawn animation by Michael Schmidt of Mount Union University in Alliance, Ohio, showing the history of the plant and the momentous day in 2021 when several of the stacks were demolished.
“When you have a major power plant in your community, a lot of work just happens because they’re there,” Cornell said. “They need truckers. They need all sorts of contractors. So it was a big, broad impact on the community as far as jobs and income and a huge tax base” when the plant closed.
She lives in the River View Local School District, a rural district that includes the village of Conesville. The district had healthy funding while the plant was around, and has been reeling since the plant closed.
The plant site is being redeveloped into a business park that will include a solar array. But the tax proceeds are set to be much less than the community got from the plant.
The oral histories about the plant are part of a larger initiative at Ohio State, the Ohio Coal Communities Project, in which faculty, staff and students are doing community case studies.
“We are in the midst of a momentous change and communities all across the country are grappling with how they transition away from coal,” said Jeffrey Jacquet, a professor of rural sociology and one of the leaders of the initiative. “How can communities come to terms with the changes that are happening? How can the arts help tell the story of where these communities have been and help to animate discussions of what comes next?”
Cornell said these kinds of questions are essential and difficult.
“It’s important to see how everything lines up so that we can talk about how we move forward as a community,” she said. “That’s what you’re supposed to do with a memorial, right?”