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

"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.”

"Focus on how we can move forward"

We often lament here the lack of political leadership in preparing Appalachia for a low-coal future, so it was refreshing to read an op-ed from Kentucky state Rep. Leslie Combs that called for less fighting over coal and more support for a more robust Appalachian economy. "We need to be talking about the new reality of less mining because we've known this day was coming," she wrote. Combs, along with another Eastern Kentucky coalfield legislator, pre-filed a bill that would return all coal severance taxes back to the counties where the coal was mined (currently they get less than half). It's a bill that is unlikely to pass, as Combs admits, but if it's a catalyst to get the legislature talking about Eastern Kentucky's economic development, then that's a start. 

In response to Rep. Combs' op-ed, the Herald-Leader wrote its own editorial, praising Combs for "her eagerness to lead on this challenge," and stating that "Combs' bottom line — 'focus less on placing blame and more on how coal-mining regions can move forward' — is unassailable." But it also pushes some of her ideas farther: "We could also support returning more of the severance tax to coal counties, but only if there is a smart plan based on sound economics and governance that would be democratic, transparent and accountable with quantifiable measures of success and failure."

Comprehensive, participatory strategic planning is absolutely crucial to Appalachia's transition. How many news stories have been written about a huge new investment into a project that fails to fulfill its promises of economic development? Too often these projects have been planned and implemented in a vacuum, with little regard for what's really needed, what's already there, or how the community feels about it. 

Why It's Important to Buy Local

The New York Times this weekend featured a beautifully-written column about the demise of a community centerpiece in Big Stone Gap, VA. The Mutual Drug Cafeteria has been more than just a place to fill a prescription, pick up a few items and grab a bite to eat - it's been a much-beloved gathering place for the community for decades. And now, like many small-town locally-owned businesses, it's being sold to a chain pharmacy. We know that small business owners are key as we work to build economic resiliency in Appalachia - but how often are we spending our money there? Here's an excerpt, but be sure to read the whole piece over at the New York Times

I had hoped my children would have memories of the Mutual, that they would have studied the old pictures on the wall and learned about community while eating lunch in those brown booths. Memories aren’t made in superstores with their beeping and bar codes, with their automatic doors and drive-through windows. As the town inches toward homogenization, it loses a little more of its history, language, architecture....

There is wishful chatter about somebody opening the Mutual again, a cafe in the space where people can come together, where tourists can eat a piece of pie and see the fog rising from the river like spirits against the backdrop of ancient mountains. They could step over to a new tourist center, they dream, where they will get directions to landmarks like our museums and recreational trails....

There is potential in our rural community and those nearby for landmarks to be renovated and reopened, and crumbling buildings replaced with gardens, spaces for farmers’ markets and theaters. If towns want to thrive again, they have to focus on preserving and promoting their signature attractions. Small businesses like the Mutual must be part of that plan to draw people back.

After all, no one ever takes a road trip to see a CVS or McDonald’s.

We must make an agreement to support our small businesses and make the hope of saving our towns a reality.

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