Appalachian Transition is devoted to ideas for a more just, sustainable and prosperous future in Central Appalachia. We are at a critical moment in our region. The time has arrived to talk about the coming transition of our economy, workforce and communities. This site is a resource for that conversation.

Appalachian Transition Blog

Appalachia needs strong leaders

The Hazard Herald of Hazard, Ky., wanted to know in this editorial where the leadership in Frankfort has beenhiding while coal jobs in eastern Kentuckycontinue dropping, leaving thousands out of work without viable alternative opportunities.

Conference report: The Rural-Urban Connection

If you follow us on Facebook or Twitter (as you should!), you'll know that lastweek I was in West Virginia for a conference hosted by the Central Appalachian Network on "the Rural-Urban Continuum," or how to better connect rural Appalachia with urban markets in and around the region. This is a challenge for our region, as many of our communities are far from urban centers with their increased buying power.

Often we hear that the cities are the economic engines of an economy, with surrounding rural areas being a drain on resources. However, the research presented at the conference, by Brian Dabson of the University of Missouri, found that this isn't necessarily the case. The chart to the left shows that, with the exception of Louisville and Cincinnati, the rural areas (labeled "periphery") surrounding the urban core actually generate more revenue than the cities. The problem is that the wealth doesn't stick - it flows back into the urban areas and tends to stay there. 

So how do we fix this problem? Dabson offered seven strategies:

  1. Expand intermediation. Replicate current intermediation approaches from one part of Central Appalachia to others, such as the Regional Flavor concept in Ohio. (Intermediaries are those entities - non-profit, for-profit or social enterprises, that help connect rural businesses to urban markets.)
  2. Capture regional markets. Explore regional markets, focusing on main urban centers, by conducting market development research through regional business schools.
  3. Connect to urban procurers. Develop connections with procurement offices in urban-based businesses by collaborating with urban-based economic development, financing, and TA agencies. 
  4. Broaden regional branding efforts. Convene business-to-business gatherings to explore regional branding potential for current and proposed brands, and support fledgling initiatives. 
  5. Focus on exports and import substitutions. Convene sectoral business-to-business gatherings in specific sectors, to explore import substitution or export opportunities. 
  6. Capitalize on provenance and quality. Explore "short supply chains" for products and services in sectors where provenance and quality can provide a competitive advantage. 
  7. Track impact and tell the story. Identify and apply specific metrics to track the development and impacts of sustainable supply chains. 

After discussing these strategies, the audience broke into small groups and came up with six more:

"Another way is possible"

Earlier this month, we featured an op-ed with some great words from Kentucky Rep. Leslie Combs about how the region needs to focus less on pointing fingers and more on working together to create a different future. Today, the Lexington Herald-Leader posted another op-ed in response to Rep. Combs' welcome leadership, this time from MACED's own Justin Maxson, offering some concrete ways forward. What can we do to bring more people - legislators included - on board?

At the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development we believe, as state Rep. Leslie Combs does, that "the time has come to ... focus more on how coal-mining regions can move forward" and not only survive, but thrive.

That's why we are very appreciative of Combs' call for a more constructive, solutions-oriented conversation about the region's economic future — a conversation with less heat and more light.

MACED has been working to help the people of Appalachia rebuild their economy from the ground up for almost 40 years. We believe there are some important things that can be done now to help promote economic transition in Appalachia.

First, we agree with her and others who say the state's coal severance tax should be used better.

Currently, only about half of the severance tax dollars collected is returned to our coal-mining counties. County governments then use the funds for several different things, including local infrastructure improvements. It's no secret to the people of Floyd County, and surrounding counties, that the amount of coal severance money available has significantly shrunk within the last year as coal production in the region has continued to decline.

MACED believes the region needs a strong and open economic-development planning process in the region tied to expenditure of coal severance funds, particularly the creation of a permanent fund. Each year a small but meaningful percentage of coal severance tax dollars could be set aside to grow in value for as long as the fund exists.

More evidence that broadband matters

There has been a lot of talk over the past year or so about how important it is to have access to broadband internet, for students, entrepreneurs, health care and teleworkers. Now a new study shows the real economic impact broadband adoption can have. The Daily Yonder, which has been great about reporting on rural broadband issues, featured a terrific summary of the new report. The study looked at rural areas which had similar demographic characteristics prior to broadband availability and then compared their economies after one region had widespread broadband adoption. The results showed that household incomes in rural counties that adopted broadband grew more quickly than those that didn't. Similarly, unemployment rates grew more slowly and number of businesses grew more quickly in counties with high broadband adoption (the article notes that, due to the recession, unemployment was higher in almost all counties).

The study points out a key difference between broadband availability and adoption. When just looking at whether or not broadband was available, there wasn't much difference; so the important factor is whether or not people take advantage of the broadband that's there. If broadband is too expensive or unreliable, or folks don't know how to sign up or effectively use it, then it doesn't matter if it's being offered. 
 
A previous study (also covered by Daily Yonder) found that while counties nationwide increased their adoption of broadband, the gap between rural and non-rural areas actually grew between 2003 and 2010, particularly among lower-income, lower education and older households. That article concluded:

We could put miners back to work today - so why aren't we?

In Washington, DC there exists a pot of money - nearly $2.5 billion - that could be used today to put Appalachians back to work repairing the environmental damage from abandoned mine sites. And yet, it's not being spent. The reason why is the usual suspect: politics. A recent article on the Daily Yonder looks into the Abandoned Mine Lands fund and why it's sitting idle: 

In the poorest part of the poorest region in America, there is nearly $2.5 billion of federal money waiting to be spent. The money, which flows into the Abandoned Mine Lands Trust, comes from taxes that coal companies pay to reclaim old and abandoned strip mines. “Reclaim,” in this context, means to refurbish and reforest the land, getting it as close as possible to its natural state before the land was mined. Additionally, the money is meant to “reclaim” the economy, paving the way for the region to move away from coal. 

No one denies what that money could represent to central Appalachia, where in just the last 18 months over 5,500 high paying mining jobs have been lost in Eastern Kentucky alone. The problem is no one can agree on how to spend it. The longer it goes unclaimed, the less likely it is to help the region....

Spadaro suggests that the fund is dormant and is being used to prop up the federal deficit. “It’s a shame because the original intent of the AML fund was to do reclamation work and to improve conditions in the coalfields, not just for streams and forests but for communities as well. And instead of being used to do that, Congress has set it aside as a hedge against the deficit. And no one, it seems to me, has had the courage to point this out, even though there are many politicians who know what’s going on.”

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