The task at hand is a tough one.
“[W]e are trying to transform a region that is looking at generational change,” said Stephanie Tyree, executive director of the West Virginia Community Development Hub, which provides technical assistance and coaches volunteer community leadership teams to grow economic development across the state.
The “we” Tyree was referencing gathered virtually Thursday morning for an Appalachian Regional Commission webinar focused on revitalizing coal communities throughout the region and touting the commission’s grant package designed to leverage workforce development and infrastructure to create jobs and attract new sources of investment where they’re sorely needed.
The webinar featured discussions between Appalachian community and economic development leaders, most of whom are West Virginia-based, about how the region can recreate vibrant downtowns, strengthen renewable energy and tourism sectors and foster entrepreneurship.
The event emphasized federal investment in Appalachia, with U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm promoting the advanced energy technology research components of a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal passed by the Senate last month and what she predicted would be job-creating clean energy incentives in the budget reconciliation package that Democrats are pushing to strengthen the nation’s social safety net through expanded Medicare, enhanced child care and housing support and protections for unions with a $3.5 trillion investment over 10 years that has yet to pass either chamber of Congress.
The webinar concluded with the Appalachian Regional Coalition’s announcement of $46.4 million for 57 projects across 184 counties — including $12.3 million for 14 West Virginia organizations — through ARC’s POWER (Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization) initiative, a congressionally funded program designed to help communities affected by job losses in coal mining and plant operations amid the nation’s energy transition.
Changes in the energy sector dominated much of the webinar’s panel discussions, which were moderated by National Energy Technology Laboratory director and West Virginia native Brian Anderson.
Panelist Brandon Dennison, founder and CEO of Coalfield Development, a Wayne County-based nonprofit dedicated to rebuilding the central Appalachian economy through workforce development and community-based revitalization projects, emphasized climate resilience as a promising economic opportunity for the region, encompassing building retrofits, solar system installation, ecotourism (nature-based travel that conserves the environment) and other projects.
Jina Belcher, executive director of the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority, is focused on creating an aviation business cluster in the Beckley area and stressed capitalizing on West Virginia’s outdoor assets and coal byproducts.
The webinar opened with recorded videos from Matewan community leaders, including Mayor Matt Moore, West Virginia Mine Wars Museum Executive Director Mackenzie New Walker and United Mine Workers of America Local 1440 Financial Secretary Hawkeye Dixon, celebrating Matewan’s storied mine wars history and hopes for a stronger downtown economy.
“We’re betting on this state because we know it’s a good investment,” Granholm said in a recorded video shown moments later.
Granholm rattled off recent Department of Energy investments in West Virginia’s energy future, including multimillion-dollar backing of geothermal and rare earth recovery research at West Virginia University.
Granholm highlighted the bipartisan infrastructure deal’s planned $65 billion investment in carbon capture, hydrogen and direct air capture technologies and pushed Democrats’ budget reconciliation package, noting that it would include a clean electricity payment program designed to incentivize clean energy technologies.
The program would authorize grants for electricity providers that increase clean electricity use by 4% or more annually and penalties for those that don’t.
Granholm also called attention to the inclusion of advanced manufacturing tax credits for clean technology manufacturing, a measure championed by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., in the Democrats’ budget package.
“We’ve gotta get this across the finish line,” Granholm said.
But Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., is among the Republicans united against the budget package, and Manchin, a key voter in an evenly divided Senate, has called for a dramatically reduced price tag for the package, endangering climate priorities in the bill. Manchin has been viewed as an obstacle to final passage of the clean electricity payment program aimed at reducing power-sector carbon emissions 80% by 2030.
Granholm pointed out that five of the 25 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics areas of the country most affected by coal-related declines are in West Virginia, according to an April report from the Interagency Work Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization created by an executive order from President Joe Biden.
The group recommended prioritizing those areas in the near term for investment using existing federal agency programs and funding from the fiscal year 2021 budget and federal COVID-19 stimulus package that Biden signed into law in March.
Thursday’s panelists agreed that one of Central Appalachia’s greatest challenges is cultivating entrepreneurship throughout the region — something they observed is possible in part through providing technical assistance in the form of funding and cost-sharing and working with local institutions that have the highest capacity to distribute federal resources to rural communities.
Tyree suggested using POWER as a model for other federal funding approaches, saying that capacity growth within organizations has been “amazing to see” in the past five years.
The Appalachian Regional Commission said it has invested more than $287.8 million in 362 projects across 353 coal-impacted counties since POWER launched in 2015.
“[F] or the federal funding to have the transformational impact that I know that this administration is seeking, … you have to think about how to proactively drive resources to the places where capital doesn’t flow easily,” Tyree said.