Posts Tagged ‘economic development’

Senate bill signals hope for economy in Appalachian coal communities

Thursday, December 15th, 2016 - posted by cat

Adam Wells, Economic Diversification Program Manager, 804-240-4372,
Cat McCue, Communications Director, 434-293-6373,

A recent study from Appalachian Voices identifies more than a dozen old coal sites in Southwest Virginia prime for repurposing.

A recent study from Appalachian Voices identifies more than a dozen old coal sites in Southwest Virginia prime for repurposing.

NORTON, VA – A bill announced today by senators from four Appalachian states for $1 billion to repurpose abandoned coal strip mines for economic development projects marks a significant step in the ongoing effort to revitalize local communities in the region.

The bill was introduced last week by Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Mark Warner (D-VA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Bob Casey (D-PA). Called the RECLAIM Act, it mirrors a bipartisan bill introduced in the House earlier this year.

Local support for increased and expedited federal investment in the coal-bearing region of Central Appalachia has grown swiftly in the last two years as coal has continued to decline. Nearly 30 local government entities in Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee have unanimously passed resolutions calling for increased funding for economic development.

Funding through a RECLAIM bill represents part of a greater effort to support coalfield communities. This year, $65 million has been allocated specifically for immediate implementation of economic development projects in the region through the Obama administration’s POWER initiative, including nearly $47 million from the Appalachian Regional Commission for 174 coal-impacted counties across nine states. Additionally, $90 million has been allocated to West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania this year for pilot projects similar to RECLAIM’s intent of using old coal mine lands for economic development. The recent Continuing Resolution reauthorized that funding for the upcoming fiscal year.

A recent study from Appalachian Voices identified 14 abandoned coal mining sites in Southwest Virginia that would be ideal candidates for RECLAIM funding. The projects, including solar facilities, local parks and sustainable agriculture projects, represent well over $16 million in cleanup costs and $52 million in construction investments.

“This is great news. We’re grateful to Senators Kaine and Warner for taking leadership on introducing RECLAIM, and glad to know they recognize the urgent need for economic diversification and environmental cleanup we feel in our communities in far Southwest Virginia,” said Adam Wells, Economic Diversification Program Manager for Appalachian Voices. “The timing of this clearly shows that both chambers of Congress are committed to passing RECLAIM in 2017 and sets a strong path forward for that to happen.”

“I’m very glad to see our senators leading the way on RECLAIM,” said Adam Malle of Big Stone Gap, Va., and a board member of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. “Last year we worked with our localities to pass resolutions of support for federal investment for economic diversification and we’re glad Senators Kaine and Warner heard that clear message from our local communities.”


New POWER Initiative Grants Aim to Bolster Coal-Impacted Economies

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne

By Elizabeth E. Payne

On Oct. 26, the White House announced more grants to assist in economic development and job training in areas hardest hit by the decline of the coal industry. This round of POWER Initiative grants awarded nearly $28 million dollars of support for 42 projects in 13 states.

The largest grant, for $3 million, was awarded to Friends of Southwest Virginia for a project intended to increase ecotourism opportunities in a four-county area. Plans include building an Appalachian Trail Center in Damascus and creating a 30-mile multi-use trail from Breaks Interstate Park to Haysi, among other recreational improvements.

The Industrial Development Authority in Wise, Va., received $2.22 million for the “Virginia Emerging Drone Industry Cluster Project,” which aims to attract the drone industry to five counties in Southwest Virginia.

West Virginia received funding for implementing, planning and researching various projects. The City of Bluefield received the state’s largest award with a $2.04 million grant for the “Bluefield Commercialization Station,” a high-tech incubator for new and existing businesses.

Smaller POWER Planning Grants were also awarded to several other projects in the state, including a $105,000 grant that would assess the viability of transforming a former “pill mill” in Williamson, W.Va., into a job training and substance abuse center.

Projects in Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee were also funded, as were numerous projects in Ohio, Pennsylvania and states outside Appalachia.

Repurposing Virginia’s Abandoned Coal Sites

Tuesday, December 13th, 2016 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne

amlstudy_cover“Healing Our Land, Growing Our Future,” a groundbreaking new report, was released on Nov. 1 by Appalachian Voices, Coal Mining Engineering Services, LLC, and Downstream Strategies.

The report imagines a new future for seven counties in far Southwest Virginia. Its authors propose forward-thinking projects — such as solar energy and organic farms — for 14 abandoned mine lands sites that could be possible if Congress passes the RECLAIM Act.

The act is a bipartisan piece of legislation that would invest $1 billion to revitalize the economies of areas historically impacted by the coal industry.

“There’s enormous momentum building at the local level to reclaim these lands for a more sustainable economic future, but we need federal investment to bring that change swiftly,” says Adam Wells, our Economic Diversification Program Coordinator. Read more about the report beginning on page 10.

POWER Initiative Grants Awarded

Friday, October 7th, 2016 - posted by interns

On Aug. 24, the White House announced the recipients of $38.8 million in POWER Initiative grants. This federal program provides assistance to communities economically damaged by the collapse of the coal industry.

A majority of the 29 projects receiving funding are in in Central Appalachia. Other funded projects are in Alabama, Texas and Pennsylvania.

The POWER Initiative provides money for projects that will help communities transition to a post-coal economy. Funded projects include the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program in Hazard, Ky., which received $2.75 million to provide technical job training to young adults and unemployed or underemployed older adults, and Appalachian Sustainable Development in Abingdon, Va., which received a $1.5 million grant to “develop a coordinated local foods distribution network throughout Central Appalachia.”

For a complete list of funded projects, visit

— Elizabeth E. Payne

New SWVa project shows top spots for turning old coal mines into economic drivers

Monday, June 20th, 2016 - posted by cat

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 4.45.15 PM

Adam Wells, Economic Diversification Program Coordinator
(o) 276-679 1691, (m) 804-240-4372,

Norton, VA — Appalachian Voices today released preliminary findings in an ongoing review of abandoned coal mine lands in Southwest Virginia to identify the best potential sites for reclamation and redevelopment for positive economic benefit for the region.

The nonprofit organization partnered with two expert consulting firms, Coal Mining Engineering Services and Downstream Strategies, to design and implement the analysis of 500 sites officially designated as “abandoned mine lands” (AML) by federal and state regulators. The initial findings released today narrow down the field of eligible sites to 21, scattered across seven counties in Southwest Virginia.

“This project brings a new way of thinking to the old problem of what to do with our region’s abandoned mine lands,” says Adam Wells, Economic Diversification Program Coordinator with Appalachian Voices. “We’re using this study to connect existing ideas from communities across the area with new funding sources to create new economic activity while improving the environment.”

Among the potential projects the joint team is considering for the sites are solar farms, community parks, forestry operations and permaculture farms with closed-loop systems that integrate waste back into improving the soil for growing organic crops.

The team evaluated the hundreds of AML sites based on a variety of criteria. It reached out to local planners to find sites that are already earmarked for some level of redevelopment activity. The team also assessed sites for proximity to population centers, transportation, and utilities infrastructure and markets. Finally, the team evaluated sites based on potential eligibility specifically for funding from the RECLAIM Act, bipartisan legislation introduced this year by Kentucky Congressman Hal Rogers and co-sponsored by Virginia Congressman Morgan Griffith, along with several other Appalachian lawmakers. The bill would expedite expenditure of $1 billion from the existing Abandoned Mine Lands Fund, which would be in addition to the fund’s annual allotment already coming to Southwest Virginia for mine reclamation.

The next step of the analysis will be a deeper assessment of each of the sites for its suitability for a variety of economic activities such as recreation and parks, renewable energy production, agroforestry, agriculture, and business or industrial park development.

The study was launched earlier this year, and the team expects to complete the final report this fall, which will be distributed to local, regional, state and federal entities to help further the growing conversation around economic diversification in Southwest Virginia.


Kentucky Tourism Experiences Strongest Growth in 10 Years

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016 - posted by molly

The Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism announced in May that it contributed $13.7 billion to the state’s economy in 2015, which is the most added in a single year since 2005. This growth created more than 6,000 jobs in the industry since 2014, for a total of 186,204 tourism jobs.

Tourism to the state’s eastern region added more than a billion dollars to the state’s economy. This part of the state contains many natural attractions, including the Appalachian mountains and Daniel Boone National Forest, which have made Kentucky such a desirable destination. This area hosts a number of horse trails, mountain and lake state parks, more than 500 miles of hiking trails, and the Red River Gorge. — Dylan Turner

Connecting the economic dots in Southwest Virginia

Thursday, May 19th, 2016 - posted by cat
Tammy Owens, owner of Foxfire Farm in  Dickenson County, Va., at the Southwest Virginia Economic Forum in May.

Tammy Owens, owner of Foxfire Farm in Dickenson County, Va., at the Southwest Virginia Economic Forum in May.

At a recent economic summit in Wise, Va., Tammy Owens paused at a display booth about the benefits of reclaiming abandoned coal mines as sites for new business. Owens owns land in nearby Dickenson County that years ago was a strip mine; it’s now in pasture for livestock as part of her organic commercial farm, established in 2011.

She also owns land along the Russell Fork River and wants to start an outfitter company that runs river trips. She’s working with the county and the U.S. Forest Service to put the take-out site downstream from her property, on another abandoned strip mine.

“It all circles back to sustainability, with the way our land is, the way it’s laid out, and keeping the natural beauty while we have a new economy,” she says. “It’s really exciting, there’s so many possibilities.”

Owens was one of more than 300 people who attended the 2016 Economic Forum on May 12, hosted by the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. The school is a key player in efforts to improve the region’s economy, and hosted the forum — with the tagline “Discover. Connect. Ignite.” — as a way to bring together the many public, private and nonprofit entities working on economic development initiatives to help move Southwest Virginia forward.

Deputy U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development addresses the audience. Copyright Tim Cox.

Deputy U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development addresses the audience. Copyright Tim Cox.

“Our commonwealth cannot be successful unless all our communities and regions are successfully growing,” said Matt Erskine, Deputy U.S. Assistant Secretary for Commerce for Economic Development and the morning’s featured speaker. “Yes, there are longstanding challenges in this region … but there is good reason to be optimistic.”

Under the Obama administration’s POWER Initiative to boost areas around the country hit hard by coal’s decline, the 2016 federal budget includes a total of $65 million for matching grants. The key, Erskine said, is partnership and collaboration. “It is not and cannot be a silver bullet,” he said. “It’s not a hand out. It’s all merit-based and competitive, and regional and local entities have to have skin in the game.”


To help encourage the dialogue needed to foster collaboration, the conference planning partners — which included Appalachian Voices — set up a series of breakout sessions for the afternoon. Topics covered education, workforce development, health and wellness, keeping and supporting existing businesses, attracting new businesses, developing the region’s agricultural and natural assets, and tapping into emerging industries like solar energy.

Appalachian Voices, along with many other groups, companies and government agencies, had an information booth at the conference, and solar was one of our featured topics. Over the past several months, Appalachian Voices has been intensively researching the opportunities for community-scale solar energy in the region. It’s one of the fastest growing sectors in the U.S. economy, and we’re seeking ways to help Southwest Virginia tap into it. Our emphasis is on building local wealth, developing local systems and capacities that “in-source” labor, services, materials and procurement.

Adam Wells, Appalachian Voices' Economic Diversification Campaign Coordinator, who is based in our Norton, Va. office.

Adam Wells, Appalachian Voices’ Economic Diversification Campaign Coordinator, who is based in our Norton, Va. office.

The other topic displayed at our booth was the opportunity for turning abandoned mine lands (generally strip mines closed prior to 1977) into a force for positive development, including solar energy but also a variety of other economic endeavors. Appalachian Voices is currently working to identify optimal sites for potential funding under the RECLAIM Act, bipartisan legislation that would release $1 billion over five years for remediation of sites that have a post-cleanup economic benefit.

The concept resonated with Didi Caldwell, an international expert in industrial site selection. Caldwell stopped by the Appalachian Voices booth to talk about reclamation opportunities, and during her address to the conference she mentioned the idea and our work.

It’s also what intrigues Tammy Owens of Dickenson County.

“How do we go from the industry of coal that all these generations have grown up with … into something that’s drastically new?” she asks. As she has talked with people in the region, she has found some still deny coal’s decline, but more often she finds hesitation, misgivings, a “fear of the unknown.” “We’re at the point now, coal is gone forever and it’s not coming back. We’ve had lean years before and could wait it out.”

But this time, Owens says, the region has to embrace the chance to reinvent its economic future. Judging from the turnout and enthusiasm around the UVA-Wise Economic Forum, she’s not alone.

“We wanted it to build positive energy and we definitely accomplished that,” said Shannon Blevins, Associate Vice Chancellor at UVA-Wise and head of the school’s Office of Economic Development and Engagement. As far as she knows, it was the first time in the region so many people had come together to focus on solutions. “I think there’s power in getting that many people together who care about the region, and their neighbors.”

Hundreds of ideas came out of the breaking sessions, which Blevins and others have grouped into six broad areas and will post on UVA-Wise’s website inviting people to join those groups and keep the conversation going.

In the week since the forum, Blevins has heard positive feedback from people who attended, including one woman who told her it felt like a pivotal moment, “like in five years we’ll point back to the forum as the day things really started to turn the corner.”

RECLAIMing Central Appalachia

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016 - posted by molly

RECLAIMing Central Appalachia

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016 - posted by molly

Federal efforts could boost local economies, repair environmental damages

By Molly Moore

A rare bipartisan proposal aims to tackle two pressing issues related to the flailing coal industry — the need for new economic opportunities in central Appalachia and repairing environmental damage from decades of mining.

In March, nine grassroots advocates from Appalachia traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with congressional representatives and staff from the White House and federal agencies. The week’s events were coordinated by The Alliance For Appalachia, a coalition of 15 environmental and community organizations including Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this newspaper.

The top priority was to inform regional legislators about the RECLAIM Act — a bill that intends to breathe new life into struggling central Appalachian economies while remediating land and water polluted by decades-old abandoned mines.

    The map shows counties that have abandoned mine lands on the federal inventory. Dark red counties have the most reclamation costs; the lightest shade of red has the least. Source: Daily Yonder from the federal Abandoned Mine Land Inventory System. Map courtesy Daily Yonder

Congressional Cooperation

In February of this year, Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican from eastern Kentucky, introduced the RECLAIM Act with the support of congressmen from both parties — Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA), Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV) and Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA). The RECLAIM Act would accelerate payments from the existing federal Abandoned Mine Lands fund, dispersing $1 billion over five years to projects that would reclaim former mining sites while boosting local economic development.

Representatives of The Alliance For Appalachia during a March trip to Washington, D.C.[/caption]Jack Kennedy, clerk of Circuit Court for Wise County and Norton, Va., and a former member of the Virginia General Assembly, says that the RECLAIM Act could lead to solar utility projects on abandoned mines and other endeavors.

“The RECLAIM Act passage would provide Appalachian community jobs immediately working to ameliorate brownfield real estate into a productive state for commercial or agricultural or other productive purposes over a period of time,” he wrote in an email.

The bill’s support from legislators like Rogers and Griffith — staunch opponents of environmental regulation, which they allege is responsible for Appalachia’s poor coal market — signals a willingness to cooperate with the administration to provide economic and community development in areas that have depended on the coal industry.

Under the RECLAIM Act, $1 billion from the federal Abandoned Mine Lands fund would be directed to qualifying states and tribes over a five-year period starting in 2017. The AML fund was established in 1977 to restore land and water contaminated by coal mines that were abandoned before the federal surface mining law took effect that year. The AML program is funded by a per-ton fee on coal production, and the money is distributed based on a state or tribe’s current coal production rather than the amount of damaged land and water.

Protect Our Water, Reclaim Our Future

Join The Alliance for Appalachia in Washington, D.C., to speak with legislators and decision-makers June 5-8. For more information, email

Presently, the AML fund holds $2.5 billion that is not dedicated toward specific projects, though the interest helps support a pension fund for roughly 100,000 retired union miners. This $2.5 billion was intended as a reserve fund for states to use after 2021, when the AML program is set to expire — the RECLAIM Act would expedite the disbursal of $1 billion from that pot.

According to a July 2015 report by the AML Policy Priorities Group, directing $200 million annually to abandoned mine lands projects for five years would bring national economic benefits of 3,117 jobs and contribute close to $500 million to the United States economy. The researchers, affiliated with Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center and The Alliance for Appalachia, estimated that central Appalachia would see about 35 percent of those benefits. They called for allocating the $1 billion in a way that differs from the RECLAIM Act by also considering economic distress. Such a formula would further boost the benefits for the area.

Even enacting RECLAIM with the current formula could be a powerful catalyst. “By expanding the scope of the AML program to consider economic benefits, Rogers and his colleagues have introduced a forward-thinking solution to one of the biggest challenges facing our region today,” Kennedy wrote in a March op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “The fact that the bill continues to gain bipartisan support is noteworthy and speaks to the urgent need for creative approaches to the economic woes of our coal regions.”

Community Support

The premise of the RECLAIM bill is based on one of the components of the president’s POWER-Plus Plan. The plan was first introduced as part of the president’s 2016 budget proposal and was reintroduced for the 2017 budget.

POWER-Plus received a warm welcome from local governments and community groups in the region, many of which were already working to diversify the historically coal-dependent economy. Twenty-eight local governments and organizations passed resolutions supporting the economic revitalization package, including 12 entities in Rogers’ home district.

Representatives of The Alliance For Appalachia during a March trip to Washington, D.C.

Representatives of The Alliance For Appalachia during a March trip to Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy The Alliance for Appalachia

Among those were the Benham Town Council and the Benham Power Board, a municipally owned utility. In early 2016, Carl Shoupe, a retired coal miner in Harlan County, Ky., and member of the Benham Power Board, wrote to Rogers and asked the congressman to help secure the funding needed to implement the POWER-Plus Plan. Citing the local declarations of support, he wrote, “As the resolutions say, we believe our transition should be one that ‘celebrates culture; invests in communities; generates good, stable and meaningful jobs; is just and equitable; and protects and restores the land, air and water.’”

Lawmakers incorporated some of the president’s plan in their one-year federal budget for 2016 including a proposal by Rogers to direct $90 million in AML funding to projects with economic potential in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia, the three states with the highest remaining costs for cleaning up abandoned mines.

As of early April, the RECLAIM Act — which would go a step further with its $1 billion allocation — had an equal number of Republican and Democratic co-sponsors. As the bill picks up more backers, a number of regional stakeholders are paying attention to how the bill is structured, and how the federal funds would be distributed.

“The Alliance [for Appalachia] is working to ensure that a strong public engagement process is included in RECLAIM,” Economic Transition Coordinator Lyndsay Tarus wrote in an email. “If the intent of the legislation is to boost economic transition, then communities most in need of the funding need their voices heard.”

During their March trip to Washington, D.C., the Alliance representatives also spoke with federal agency staff about the need for reliable oversight of clean water regulations, including a strong Stream Protection Rule to protect waterways from mining damage.

“The Alliance understands that meaningful and sustainable economic transition is just not possible when the basic necessity of clean water isn’t available,” Tarus states.

A POWERful Big Picture

The expedited release of abandoned mine lands dollars is one piece of a broader effort to assist central Appalachia and other communities around the country experiencing economic hardships due to coal’s decline.

In addition to the abandoned mine lands proposal, President Obama’s POWER-Plus Plan would strengthen the healthcare and pension plans for approximately 100,000 retired coal miners and their families. The Miners Protection Act, a bill to enact the pension change, is currently in the Senate. The POWER-Plus Plan also calls for two new tax credits for power plants that use carbon-capture technology.

Another core component of the plan is the proposed Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization initiative, which would grant $75 million in economic development funding to the region. These funds would provide more support for former coal workers through programs such as the Appalachian Regional Commission and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program. An additional $5 million to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields Program would also clean up contaminated lands that have economic potential in formerly coal-dependent communities.

This POWER funding would help these agencies provide workforce training and bolster economic developments such as broadband access to attract new business.

In fall 2015, the Obama administration announced what it called a “down payment” on the plan — nearly $15 million in grants to kick-start some of these initiatives. So far, the grants have been allocated to strengthen Kentucky’s local food supply chain, bring agriculture to reclaimed mines in West Virginia, provide job training in fields such as technology and local food, develop community-specific economic diversification plans, create a substance abuse treatment center, and help new and existing industries capitalize on an expanding broadband network. Read more at right.

Kennedy waxes enthusiastically about the prospect for economic revitalization embodied in the RECLAIM Act and the POWER-Plus Plan. “Restoring Appalachian opportunity is essential,” he states. “We need to be among the first providing multiple 20 to 80 megawatts of small commercial-scale solar utility farms to learn and culturally accept the energy transition underway in our nation and around the globe.”

“Change is hard, but it is the only constant even for us in the more isolated mountains,” he continues. “We must adapt, improvise and overcome multiple challenges.”

As legislators, agency administrators and regional advocates work to pass these various federal economic proposals, one of the challenges for local supporters will be to make sure citizen input and priorities are reflected in the implementation of these programs.

“The key thing is citizen involvement,” says Mary Love, a Kentucky resident and member of The Alliance For Appalachia’s federal strategy team who met with legislators about the RECLAIM Act. “They have to show that they have citizen involvement in deciding what projects to fund. You can bet that we’ll be all over that.”

Grants Power Area Projects

➤ In southeast Kentucky, the POWER Initiative provided funding for the nonprofit media institution Appalshop to work with Southeast Community & Technical College and ten local employers to develop a one-year certificate program in technology. The three-track program would offer classes geared towards web coding, graphic and web design, and network infrastructure and security services. According to Ada Smith, Appalshop’s institutional development director, a formal certificate in technology would provide “a marked signifier to others that this person is interested, available and ready to work.” Smith hopes that courses will begin in fall 2017, and is optimistic that the program could be replicated at other community colleges.

➤ The Southern Appalachian Labor School in Robson, W.Va., received a planning grant to evaluate how both abandoned and reclaimed surface mines in the area might be used to provide economic benefits. “Right now we’re going to try to scope post-mining sites in the county, see what’s available, do a solar site analysis and see if it’s feasible to put in a solar farm,” says Director John David. The team will be looking at issues such as grid connectivity and cost, in addition to considering other projects like orchards and a senior living complex.

➤ The organization Friends of Southwest Virginia received a POWER Initiative grant to advance ongoing tourism, recreation and entrepreneurship projects. Among the endeavors is a new ecological education center near the Clinch River that will serve as both an educational and entrepreneurial hub. Another project will improve riverfront access from the New River to five downtown centers in Giles County. In Wise County, local tourism partners plan to create a visitors center in Norton to provide information about the region’s assets.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the ecological education center supported by Friends of Southwest Virginia would be on the Guest River. Instead, the proposed center would be on the Clinch River near St. Paul. We regret the error.

Powering Up: Diversifying central Appalachia’s economy

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015 - posted by interns

By Cat McCue

Forum participants broke into small groups to discuss what kinds of economic growth they envision for their community. Photo by Alistair Burke

Forum participants broke into small groups to discuss what kinds of economic growth they envision for their community. Photo by Alistair Burke

Last July, in far southwest Virginia, Wise County made national news when it hosted the first federally approved commercial drone delivery in the United States. The scene was a rural medical clinic tucked deep among the Appalachian mountains, and the package delivered by the small buzzing aircraft contained much-needed supplies.

“They were calling it our Kitty Hawk moment,” says Andrianah Kilgore, a Wise County native who was involved in the project and whose excitement for the possibilities it signified for the future of her community hasn’t waned since.

“Despite some misconceptions from the rest of the world, this area could really be a leader in technology,” she says.

Kilgore, 25, was among more than 130 people who attended one of eight community forums in September called “Southwest Virginia’s New Economy Forums.” The forums, hosted by Appalachian Voices, which publishes this newspaper, and Virginia Organizing, provided a place for ordinary citizens from across southwest Virginia to share their ideas and vision for stabilizing and growing the region’s economy. The area has been pummeled in recent years by layoffs and business closings as the coal industry continues to decline.

“The coal industry, like it or dislike it, has to, or will be, slowing down. It’s an exhaustive resource at the end of the day,” says Zafar Kahn, who also attended the community forum in Wise.

More than 60 percent of central Appalachian coal-producing counties are currently classified as “economically distressed” by the Appalachian Regional Commission. Those counties saw population declines of 9 percent between 1980 and 2010, compared to a 36 percent increase nationwide, and these days, the average per-capita income is just 59 percent of the national average.

Kahn, an associate professor of economics at the University of Virginia at Wise, has an academic interest in the region’s challenges, but also a personal stake in the community where he has lived for the past nine years.

“I’m very concerned about the economic development of the local area,” he says. “You can’t be just dependent on that one industry. So you must diversify.”

A tipping point

The coalfields of Virginia, and across central Appalachia, have hit hard times before, each resulting in efforts to bring in more industry and business. The pervasive belief, however, was that the coal industry would always be there, so those efforts never truly pulled the local communities out from under dominance of coal, says Adam Wells, a fifth generation Wise County resident and the economic diversification campaign coordinator for Appalachian Voices.

This time, though, it’s different.

“We’re in a watershed moment, a tipping point,” Wells says. “There have never been as many people working in a coordinated way on economic diversification, or even using that term, ‘diversification.’ There’s a collective understanding that coal is on its way out, for real this time.”

Over the last several months, a groundswell of support has been spreading across central Appalachia for the “POWER+ Plan,” announced in February as part of President Obama’s 2016 proposed budget. The Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization plan calls for billions in federal funding to help coal­-impacted areas nationwide, including Central Appalachia.

Local residents and members of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth stand with the Benham City Council in eastern Kentucky after a unanimous vote to pass a resolution supporting the Power-Plus Plan in August.  Photo courtesy Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center

Local residents and members of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth stand with the Benham City Council in eastern Kentucky after a unanimous vote to pass a resolution supporting the Power-Plus Plan in August. Photo courtesy Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center

As of press time in late November, 24 local government entities in the coalfields of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee have passed resolutions supporting the plan, or generally supporting federal action to aid the region. All but one have passed unanimously.

The POWER+ Plan would advance a new way of thinking about abandoned coal mines, which continue to pose a safety and health threat and pollute local waterways. In Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, it would deliver $340 million over five years to clean up sites that have potential for long-lasting economic activity, such as developing a solar installation or mountain bike park.

“In the past, federal funds were used just to clean up the worst messes, but this funding would be specifically for economic development,” Wells says.

The region would also get some portion of $153 million to support worker retraining, tourism, agriculture, energy efficiency and other economic development initiatives. The plan would also refurbish the United Mine Workers’ health and pension funds, which distribute $570 million annually to the four states.

“Appalachia is the next great investment opportunity in America,” says Earl Gohl, the commission’s federal co-chair. For decades, “people have spent their lives underground, in the dark, making a living. There’s no doubt in my mind those skills they had to use to support their families and develop communities are the same skills that are critical and important now.”

To nurture this survival instinct, the region needs help establishing what he calls an “entrepreneurial ecosystem” that includes capital funding, broadband internet and technical support for marketing and export.

The POWER+ Plan would be a strong step in that direction, and Gohl commends the local governments that support it. “From the commission’s point of view, we are very excited to work with them, and hopeful to how far we can move the needle,” he says.

The resolutions show the growing consensus among citizens and local leaders around the dire need for economic diversification in the coalfields. But for POWER+ to work, Congress must approve the funding, and so far, there hasn’t been strong public leadership from congressional representatives to usher the bill through the legislative process.

Simultaneous with proposing POWER+, President Obama announced a “down payment” on the plan of $14.5 million in existing funding for coal communities this year — no congressional approval needed. As of October, that money is on the ground in 12 coal states and tribal territories.

Awarded through four federal agencies, the funds are fueling a wide variety of projects, including retraining former coal-plant workers from Washington state and the Navajo Nation, developing a strategic business plan in southern Pennsylvania, diversifying the coal region of the San Juan Basin in the desert southwest and many others.

Central Appalachia by far received most of the funding, including:
• More than $3 million to expand broadband internet in Kentucky;
• $826,400 to extend water to an industry near Union, W.Va.;
• Almost $550,000 for a local food supply project in Elizabethtown, Ky.;
• $1.2 million for a substance abuse treatment program in Ashcamp, Ky., a coalfield community struggling with rampant drug use; and
• $350,000 to support efforts in southwest Virginia to develop outdoor recreation and tourism, and provide training for entrepreneurs.

Not waiting around

While Congress squabbles and coal companies seek to shelter their profits in bankruptcy courts, the people of Central Appalachia are not standing idly by. Over the last decade in particular, dozens of public and private initiatives and enterprises have taken root to grow the regional economy.

There are the big-vision projects. In southwest Virginia, the idea for a tourist-oriented, auto-centric “museum” showcasing the area’s musical heritage emerged in 2003. Today, the Crooked Road is a 330-mile route that includes 19 counties and more than 55 towns and cities and has been written up in the New York Times and Lonely Planet. The total economic impact as a result of the Crooked Road was estimated to be almost $23 million for 2008 (the most recent data available), with 445 full-time equivalent jobs.

Common themes that emerged from all eight forums were supporting advanced manufacturing and ecotourism, enhancing relationships between local colleges and the community, expanding broadband infrastructure, and ensuring that younger people have a voice in helping shape the region’s future. Photo by Alistair Burke

Common themes that emerged from all eight forums were supporting advanced manufacturing and ecotourism, enhancing relationships between local colleges and the community, expanding broadband infrastructure, and ensuring that younger people have a voice in helping shape the region’s future. Photo by Alistair Burke

There are the small business start-ups. In Pikeville, Ky., Bit Source trains laid-off coal miners and other industry workers in software coding and pairs them with markets well beyond the city limits. Its website proclaims: “The business concept and plan is to transition a workforce from one that exported coal from the region to one that exports CODE (#exportCode).” Started in October 2014, Bit Source received 900 applications in its first month and now employs 13 local people, most of whom were coal industry workers themselves. Its success drew U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez for a visit in early 2015.

And then there are the local public projects. In Norton, Va., Shayne Fields has been working for the city for several years to design and build a top-notch mountain biking trail system on nearby High Knob Mountain. The way he sees it, there’s a double advantage in developing outdoor recreation facilities — attracting more affluent visitors to frequent restaurants, hotels and shops, and enticing local folks outdoors.

“Like many other depressed areas, you don’t see a lot of people here who are very active. You need to try to get people off the couch, outside and engaged in anything,” Fields says. “The tech industry won’t come unless they have a happy, educated work force and they get happy by doing the outside things.”

So, what will pull the region through in the years ahead? Gohl, with the Appalachian Regional Commission, says it comes down to the endemic sense of independence and a strong attachment to community. “In Appalachia, it’s hard to find someone who’s not running a business out of the back of a truck,” he says. “They don’t see themselves as entrepreneurs, but they are.”

Andrianah Kilgore, the young woman at the Wise community forum, embodies that attachment. She was born and raised here, her parents, too, and she doesn’t see herself living anywhere else. Not if she can help it.

“I feel a very huge sense of, I guess, debt to my community,” she says. “They gave a lot to me growing up. I absolutely feel like I should be a driving force, and hopefully bring the group of peers that I have along with me, to help the community continue to be successful.”