Study Finds Appalachia Can Look Beyond Coal to Build Economy

(CN) – President Donald Trump has pledged to revitalize the nation’s coal industry but employment in that sector is at a record low, according to federal data, and many major coal-burning power plants across Appalachia are using other fuels or closing down entirely.

According to a report released Wednesday by the Appalachian Regional Commission, or ARC, the region has a lot more to offer than coal and is already implementing strategies to become more economically resilient.

In its 56-page report titled “Strengthening Economic Resilience in Appalachia,” the commission highlights several counties in Appalachia — a region that reaches from Northern Mississippi to Southern New York — that are supporting entrepreneurship, promoting local natural beauty, and making rural communities more appealing places to live.  

“This research highlights what we see every day at ARC — examples of Appalachian communities exhibiting resilience despite significant economic disruptions,” ARC Federal Co-Chair Tim Thomas said in a statement. “Communities which are thoughtfully investing in community infrastructure, capitalizing on cross-collaboration, and cultivating entrepreneurship are driving the region’s economic future.”

The report identifies eight ways Appalachian counties can strengthen their economies, and looks at case studies of economically resilient counties across the region that may serve as examples to areas that are struggling to find their footing in a post-coal economy.

In Harrison County, West Virginia, a historically coal-producing area in the north central part of the state, coal production has plummeted in the last two decades. In 2002, the county had nine coal mines. In 2015, only two mines remained.

However, according to report, the county has been strikingly resilient, surviving the Great Recession of 2008 with “zero impact to total employment.”  

“Transitioning away from the traditional economic activities of the region has been a long process, and Harrison County has made many intentional efforts to transition,” the report states. “Many efforts undertaken in the county are available to all Appalachian counties, such as developing business incubators, engaging in historic preservation, and working with the state’s land grant university.”

The county, home to the cities of Clarksburg and Bridgeport, is developing local entrepreneurship through the Bridgeport Farmer’s Market, which serves as a “business incubator,” launching small businesses from farm stands to brick-and-mortar shops.

In Clarksburg, home to two major medical facilities, efforts are underway to develop its numerous historical buildings, and a historic theater will house a new performing arts center, “helping create communities where people want to live.”

The county’s resilience may also be tied to its proximity to a major highway, which connects it with the state’s capitol city and adjacent counties, and to the fact that many residents have been securely employed by the health care and education sectors.

Historically coal-dependent counties might also look to Fannin County, Georgia, selected as a case study for the commission’s report for showing “higher resilience than expected.”

Forty-three percent of employed residents in the county are self-employed, and more than 60 businesses are located in downtown Blue Ridge, which has a population of less than 1,400 people.

Home to the start of the Appalachian Trail in Northern Georgia, the region is mountainous and rural — like much of Appalachia — but has a steadily growing population.   

The county’s 2018 Joint Comprehensive Plan lays out a strategy to “take advantage of the county’s bountiful natural assets” and improve the quality of life through affordable housing programs and infrastructure investment.

An overarching theme of the report is that Appalachian communities should focus on ideas that “come from within the community around sector-based economic growth,” rather than ideas that are “externally imposed on communities.”

The report highlights Opportunity Threads, a worker-owned textile plant in Morganton, North Carolina, as one example of working within the community on sector-based growth. The town began as a textile mill town, but offshore jobs hit that industry hard. Now, workers are “breathing life” into the town in a “socially innovative, adaptive way,” according to the report.

Growing Appalachian communities from within is important to those who live there.  

In its survey of 150 “leaders and practitioners” in the region, ARC researchers found that 59 percent said fostering new entrepreneurs is most important to strengthening economic resilience.

Forty-four percent of those surveyed said that supporting worker-owned businesses or cooperatives and grassroots collaborative efforts is most important.

Less popular answers were “creating tax incentives and financing packages to attract new businesses” (21 percent) and “recruiting new businesses via other means” (also 21 percent).

The researchers came up with eight best practices to strengthen counties in Appalachia: Invest in education, technology, infrastructure, and broadband; engage the community over the long term; create communities where people want to live; grow youth engagement and next-generation leadership; identify and grow the assets in the community and region; build networks and foster collaboration; move multiple sectors forward for economic development and grow value chains; and cultivate entrepreneurs and develop resources for business start-ups.

The research was conducted by Downstream Strategies, Pennsylvania State University, Dialogue + Design Associates and other partners in two rounds of interviews in 2017, a focus group, and the survey.

ARC is an economic development agency of the federal government and 13 state governments, which has a mission to strengthen economic growth in Appalachia.  

“Our team hopes this study will help practitioners identify ways to make their communities more resilient to economic shocks,” environmental consultant Fritz Boettner said in a statement.

Boettner works for Downstream Strategies and was the project leader on the research included in the report.

“We explored locations across the country to inform a pragmatic approach to community development aiming towards the triple bottom line of economic, social and environmental development,” he said. “We believe this approach can lead to stronger and more resilient communities in Appalachia.”

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