Powering Appalachia's brighter future

An initiative to help Appalachian communities transition away from coal mining will fund an effort to identify opportunities to fill gaps in food supply chains in Eastern Kentucky. (Photo from the Community Farm Alliance.)

By Susanna Hegner, Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation*

Coalfield communities are getting a much-needed jolt.

On Oct. 15, the Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) Initiative announced its first round of grants for communities in 12 states and tribal regions affected by changes in the coal industry and energy sector. The $14.5 million is aimed at helping diversify economies, create jobs, attract new sources of investment and provide skills training for high-quality employment. The POWER effort aligns a range of programs and resources through the Commerce Department, the Labor Department, the Small Business Administration and the Appalachian Regional Commission. The bulk of the first round of funding is going to Kentucky and West Virginia, the two states most severely affected by the downturn in the coal industry. In those states, MRBF's partners are among the recipients who will use these grants for a variety of initiatives to foster economic diversity.

Appalshop, a media, arts and education center, will use its $275,000 grant to launch the Southeast Kentucky High Tech Workforce project in partnership with a community college and local employers. The partners will develop a one-year information technology workforce certificate program and a technology and digital media training curriculum. The project will offer college credit, create 16 new jobs at wages higher than the region's average and leverage $375,000 in private investment. "This award is further recognition of the role that art, media and technology will play in the economic growth of our region," said Appalshop Executive Director Alexander Gibson.

With $600,000 in POWER funds, the Coalfield Development Corporation will increase agricultural production on surface-mined sites, offer business incubation services, and provide job training and mentorship to expand West Virginia's local food economy and enhance the sustainability of economically disadvantaged farmers. "POWER funding is helping us take a community-based and tested on-the-job training model and apply it to a new sector of the economy," explained CDC Executive Director Brandon Dennison.

The West Virginia Community Development Hub, which has played a critical role in bringing funding to hard-hit areas, will receive $100,000 to develop community-specific economic diversification plans for five communities in the southern part of the state. "For West Virginia, POWER is a significant opportunity to foster new economic activity, build stronger communities, and create and attract the businesses and industries that will drive the state for decades to come," said WV Hub Deputy Director Stephanie Tyree. "The news today also shows us that POWER is eager to support our state's bravest and most creative young entrepreneurs."

The Kentucky Center for Agriculture and Rural Development will receive more than half a million dollars to map the food supply chains in Eastern Kentucky and identify opportunities to fill gaps in those chains. KCARD will work with partners in the region, including MRBF grantee partner Community Farm Alliance, to offer farmers and entrepreneurs technical assistance in business planning and marketing to reach targeted markets for their products.

Other grants will support sustainable forestry initiatives, study ways to repurpose abandoned mines, shore up tourism and recreation efforts and fund infrastructure projects critical to attracting new industry. Those projects include expanded public water service and high-speed broadband in rural areas. (You can see the full list of POWER grant recipients here.)

This round of funding could be just the beginning. The federal agencies expect to make additional grants through the POWER Initiative in 2015. Although it is an uphill battle for congressional approval, beginning next year, the POWER+ Plan would invest a billion dollars to redevelop coalfields, promote economic diversification, train laid-off coal miners for new jobs and protect their retirement and health benefits. In its recent policy paper about the Abandoned Mine Land Program, MRBF grantee partner Appalachian Citizens' Law Center writes:

"The POWER+ Plan's explicit purpose is to improve the economy of the frontline communities in Appalachia and other coalfields experiencing the brunt of the shifting energy sector and rightly places emphasis on job creation. … The plan was developed against the backdrop of an Appalachian economy experiencing severe economic decline and environmental disruption. It is because the initiative is rooted in the realities that coalfields are currently facing that this proposal has the potential to be a valuable part of a just Appalachian transition."

Through a variety of approaches, dozens of organizations are already working to secure a more vibrant, sustainable economy for Central Appalachia. To learn more about transition initiatives, visit the Appalachia Funders Network, a coalition of 80 public and private grantmakers supporting a thriving, equitable economy that sustains the region's environmental and cultural assets.

(* Disclosure: The Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation is a funder of the Institute for Southern Studies, which publishes Facing South.)