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Looking At Economic Development In Appalachia -- Without Rose-Colored Glasses

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Janet Kunicki/ WVPB
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A student in the Green Mining program, harvesting lavender from an abandoned surface mine in 2018.

The coronavirus pandemic has hit small business hard, including here in Appalachia. Vaccines could bring a bit of normalcy back to our lives, but we have a lot of work ahead to rebuild our economy and create well-paying jobs.

Let’s be real though, Appalachia was already hurting, and the pandemic was just another blow.

In this episode of Inside Appalachia, we’re revisiting some of the stories we have reported about economic development. We’ll hear how these projects are doing today, and how the pandemic has impacted these efforts.

Many of these initiatives involve farming, including some projects that attempt to grow food and herbs on abandoned mine lands. These projects promise jobs and economic freedom. Did they deliver?

Lavender

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Janet Kunicki
A lavender plant being grown in southern West Virginia.

An economic development project in southern West Virginia, partly funded by a $1 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, planned to grow lavender on former strip mines in West Virginia, and to employ former miners and veterans. After our first story aired in early 2018, we heard from students in the program who felt misled by the promises of the project, called Green Mining.

Roxy Todd revisited the site to find out what happened, in a story we originally aired later in 2018. Recently, we followed up with the CEO of the West Virginia Regional Technology Park to see how things turned out.

Apple Orchards

Another initiative to use abandoned mine land for economic development is being run by the West Virginia National Guard. In 2018, the guard received more than $5 million to grow apples in Nicholas County, West Virginia. We explore this project’s ambitious goals to create jobs through apple farming.

 

Farm Distribution

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Courtesy
Sprouting Farms in Summers County, WV was first supported by ARC’s POWER Initiative in 2018.

The Sprouting Farms project in Talcott, West Virginia connects farmers with customers throughout West Virginia.

In 2018, reporter Brittany Patterson visited the program. In the past year, Sprouting Farms has grown. As part of a collaborative project with other organizations, they’ve been selling more food through their online site, called Turnrow, where customers can purchase food directly from farmers and get the food delivered to their town the following week.

The pandemic has increased demand for local foods, said April Koenig, one of the managers at Sprouting Farms. “The pandemic has absolutely highlighted how badly the West Virginia economy, the food sector, needs this,” Koenig said.

Working Together

The Sprouting Farms story highlights the need to work together. The West Virginia Community Development Hub works to connect initiatives statewide.

Researchers at The Hub spent more than a decade studying the success of economic development projects. They found that many one-off federal investments prove largely unsustainable, but when people collaborate, they tend to be more successful long term. Now, they’re encouraging groups and local governments to work together.

Roxy Todd interviewed Stephanie Tyree, executive director of The Hub, in 2018, about why collaboration can help leverage federal investment for Appalachia. Tyree also points to Western Germany as a region that has found ways to jumpstart small business development, as they make the transition away from coal as a major economic driver.

Outdoor Tourism

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Emily Allen
A group of tourists from New York state were parked outside the Ole Jose Grill and Cantina parking lot in Pineville, Wyoming County.

Economic development in Appalachia was challenging before the pandemic. In some ways, it’s even tougher now. On the other hand, outdoor tourism is a natural growth industry in the region. We listen back to a story Emily Allen originally reported in 2019, about ATV tourism on the Hatfield and McCoy Trails in Southern West Virginia — another recipient of federal investment.

Emily is a Report for America Corps fellow.

Federal Grants

The Hatfield and McCoy ATV Trail system received a federal grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). That’s the same funding agency that’s provided grants to several of the projects in this episode.

The ARC is a federal agency that began more than 50 years ago during the War on Poverty, with the sole purpose of rebuilding Appalachia’s economy.

In 2015, the Obama administration pushed the agency to add a new funding program, called the POWER initiative. Instead of awarding funds to state governments, POWER grants go directly to local organizations in the region.

In 2020 alone, the ARC invested about $160 million in Appalachia.

Grants applications for the ARC’s POWER initiative are normally accepted each March.

Talk To Us

One thing the pandemic has shown is just how vulnerable working families are. People living paycheck to paycheck don’t have safety nets. We plan to stay with this issue in the months ahead.

We’d love to hear your ideas about how to make Appalachia’s economy stronger. How are you? How’s your family? And how’s your community doing? Don’t be a stranger. Write to us. We’re at InsideAppalachia@wvpublic.org.

Music in this episode is by Dinosaur Burps, Jake Schepps, Strictly Clean and Decent, Little Sparrow, Dog and Gun and Hazel Dickens.

Roxy Todd is our producer. Our executive producer is Andrea Billups. Our associate producer is Eric Douglas. Glynis Board edited our show this week. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Zander Aloi also helped produce this episode. You can find us online on Twitter @InAppalachia.

You can also send us an email to InsideAppalachia@wvpublic.org.

You can also address your letters to Inside Appalachia at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, 600 Capitol Street, Charleston, West Virginia 25301.

Inside Appalachia is a production of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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Caitlin Tan is working as Inside Appalachia’s folklife reporter, as part of a Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies grant. The goal of her reporting is to help engage a new generation in Appalachian folklife and culture.
Roxy Todd is a reporter and producer for Inside Appalachia and has been a reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting since 2014. She’s won several awards, including a regional AP Award for best feature radio story, and also two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. You can reach her at rtodd@wvpublic.org.