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Logan County Administrator Rocky Adkins is hoping to dip into a $1 billion pot of federal funding.

The U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Build Back Better Regional Challenge is a competition for $1 billion in grants to help boost local economies.

The Biden administration has made a case for investing heavily in West Virginia communities reeling from the coal industry’s decline, and many of the 10 West Virginia applicants for millions in Build Back Better Regional Challenge funding have based their project proposals on advanced manufacturing and renewable energy as the keys to reversing that decline.

Logan County is one of them, according to a list recently released by the Economic Development Administration.

Adkins said the Logan County Commission joined the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority and the Huntington Area Development Council to submit an application seeking funding he says would spur investments from four companies willing to operate in the area.

The companies would focus on advanced carbon products, waste-to-energy waste management, renewable power generation and biochemicals, respectively, according to Adkins.

“We [would] build the buildings and the infrastructure for them to be able to locate [here],” Adkins said.

The Economic Development Administration will allocate at least $100 million of the Build Back Better Regional Challenge funding to support coal communities, and Logan County is one of 10 program applicants from West Virginia, according to a list recently released by the Administration.

An April report from a federal work group identified southern West Virginia as the area of the country most in need of focused investment because of its high dependence on coal jobs.

The report from the Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization, created by President Joe Biden via executive order, highlighted the 25 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics areas of the country most affected by coal-related declines.

Five of them were in West Virginia: Southern West Virginia nonmetropolitan (No. 1); Wheeling (No. 3); Northern West Virginia nonmetropolitan (No. 11); Beckley (No. 23); and Charleston (No. 24).

The group recommended prioritizing these areas in the near term for federal investment.

“I’m challenging them on that,” Adkins said. “I’m challenging them to prove it.”

The West Virginia Department of Economic Development submitted an application to create a defense and national security industry cluster in energy communities in southern and central West Virginia.

The project is centered on the defense-related supply chain, advanced manufacturing, high-value products from carbon, energy materials, data analytics and training facilities for the defense and national security industry, according to spokesman Andy Malinoski.

The department has partnered for the proposed project with the West Virginia Small Business Development Center, the West Virginia Community and Technical College System, the Morgantown-based U.S. Research Impact Alliance, a nonprofit that works with scientists and entrepreneurs to develop and deploy solutions in high-value products from carbon and advanced energy materials, West Virginia University’s Data Driven WV, an analytic solutions provider, and the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority.

Since West Virginia is among the states with the highest military veteran per capita rates, the coalition plans to capitalize on state veterans’ skills and knowledge to support the defense and national security industry, Malinoski said in an email.

Malinoski said that the likelihood of moving those initiatives forward would “dramatically increase” if the program is approved for the regional challenge funding, underlining the importance of the applications.

The Build Back Better Regional Challenge is a two-phased competition. In phase one, interested regions formed coalitions of eligible entities and collaborate to develop a concept proposal that details a vision for developing or expanding a new or existing regional industry and three to eight potential projects that support that vision.

In phase two, the Economic Development Administration will award 20 to 30 regional coalitions $25 million to $75 million to implement those projects. Eligible phase two implementation grant costs include water and sewer system improvements, industrial parks, business incubators and accelerators, multi-tenant manufacturing facilities and broadband.

First, though, 50 to 60 regional coalitions of partnering entities will be awarded $500,000 in technical assistance funds to develop and support three to eight projects to grow a regional growth cluster.

The EdVenture Group, a Morgantown-based nonprofit that focuses on educational programming, submitted an application geared toward transitioning coal communities to a biobased economy.

The group intends to partner with regional communities to capitalize on coal sector infrastructure and local biomass resources to power the project, EdVenture Group President and CEO Lydotta Taylor said, noting West Virginia’s abundance of forest and other biomass resources such as logging and sawmill residues.

Biomass is renewable organic material that comes from plants and animals that can produce electricity or heat.

Taylor observed that West Virginia has large quantities of previously mined lands that could be well-suited for growing biomass feedstocks like hybrid willow or switchgrass that can be processed and used for feedstock material to bioproduct industries.

The goal is to develop and build a biobased supply chain and industry sector for renewable products and energy.

Taylor added that portions of the project may still move forward even if the application is unsuccessful, although that has not been determined.

Coalfield Development, a Wayne County-based business build-out nonprofit, submitted an application to expand the solar industry in West Virginia in a climate technology initiative that CEO Brandon Dennison says would prioritize sustainable reclamation of mine lands, energy efficiency retrofits of older buildings, and green manufacturing.

The Berkeley County Development Authority applied to support an Interstate 81 advanced manufacturing corridor cluster project.

Other program applicants include the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority looking to support the outdoor industry, the Region VII Planning and Development Council aiming to support a north central West Virginia tourism development initiative, the Fairmont-based West Virginia High Technology Consortium Foundation hoping to build and scale a data analytics cluster.

The Bluefield Economic Development Authority and the Marshall University Research Corporation rounded out West Virginia’s 10 applicants.

The Economic Development Authority, a bureau within the Department of Commerce, received 529 applications. The deadline for applications was Oct. 19.

The focus of the applications on using West Virginia’s natural resources outside a traditional fossil fuel framework follows years of population loss and economic decline amid the state’s heavy reliance on coal, oil and natural gas for economic survival.

The coal industry’s decline has decimated the tax bases of southern coalfield counties like Logan.

Logan County Commission President Danny Godby said earlier this year the county’s quarterly coal severance tax revenue had fallen from $900,000 in 2017 and 2018 to $250,000-300,000, prompting the county to pull support from community service organizations, such as youth sports teams and the Kiwanis and Lions clubs.

Meanwhile, a boom in natural gas production in West Virginia’s northern counties hasn’t translated into greater prosperity among its people.

An analysis released earlier this year by the Ohio River Valley Institute, a nonprofit think tank, noted that jobs increased in Doddridge, Harrison, Marshall, Ohio, Ritchie, Tyler and Wetzel counties as well as 15 other nearby counties in Ohio and Pennsylvania increased by just 1.6% from 2008 to 2019, 2.3 percentage points behind all West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania counties and 8.3 percentage points below the national average.

The report found that from 2008 to 2019, when 97% of gross domestic product growth nationally was realized as personal income, that figure was just 21% in the 22 counties across West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania — something that the study attributes to three quarters of growth in those counties taking place in the mining, quarrying, oil and natural gas extraction sector.

In August 2019, Gov. Jim Justice established a task force to bring manufacturing opportunities to West Virginia ahead of an anticipated expansion of the petrochemical industry in Appalachia. Justice’s office said that expansion would bring billions of dollars in investments and more than 100,000 new jobs to the region.

With that prospect growing dimmer two years later, the grass looks greener on the greener side. West Virginia economic development officials hope the feds agree and put their money where their mouths are.

“We are designing our project from the bottom up, putting coal-impacted communities in the lead of rebuilding our future,” Dennison said.

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