Since 1965, the Appalachian Regional Commission has collaborated with local and state partners to transform communities, create jobs, and strengthen the regional economy. Since becoming the ARC federal co-chair in May, I take seriously my responsibility to work collaboratively with ARC’s 13-member governors, their state alternates and program managers, and a network of local development districts to continue fostering economic growth throughout Appalachia.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting with stakeholders across the region, and will continue these visits moving forward. They’ve shared what’s working in their communities, what challenges they continue to face, as well as their concerns and hopes for the future. One thing has become evident as I’ve continued these conversations — we have many more commonalities than differences.
In our Appalachian region, the issue has always been equity. We all want to level the playing field so Appalachia can succeed; we want the same opportunities as mainstream America. That starts with building a strong workforce through education and training, improving infrastructure, making investments in leadership, and creating an environment where entrepreneurs can succeed.
ARC’s investments have moved the region forward over a number of decades. It began by building a highway system through the mountain range, which opened this region to a new era of growth. The regional poverty rate been cut by more than half. Additionally, the number of high-poverty counties has been cut by more than 60%.
In counties that received ARC investments, employment increased at a 4.2% faster pace, and per capita income increased at a 5.5% faster pace, than in similar counties that did not receive ARC investments. In addition, the percentage of adults in the region with a high school diploma has nearly tripled since 1960, and students in Appalachia now graduate from high school at nearly the same rate as the national average.
While we recognize these accomplishments, we still have work to do. There are still highways to finish to better connect our states. The other “highway” system critical to our residents and businesses is the reliable, high-speed “broadband highway.” Job creation is not increasing at the same rate as the rest of the country, due in part to this factor.
In addition, the nation’s substance use disorder crisis continues to disproportionately impact Appalachia. Even with the many grants made across the Appalachian region, roughly 20% of the region’s population is not served by a community water system, which again accentuates the disparity of our most distressed counties.
The enduring news is that Appalachian people are strong, resilient and always up for a challenge. As a result, ARC has tremendous support from local, state and national leaders who realize we stand by our word and our values, just as the people do. The support we have is a result of decades of commitment to the region — and most importantly—measurable and demonstrated progress through our investments. Borrowing from a quote I heard recently “We’ve built trust thimbleful by thimbleful,” and we don’t take that lightly.
Because ARC believes Appalachians know their communities best, we asked residents to be a part of our strategic planning process to guide investments over the next 5 years. After input from more than 1,500 residents through community conversations, focus groups, and a public survey, we’re proud to outline our latest strategic investment goals:
1. Building Businesses: Strengthen and diversify the region’s economy through inclusive economic development strategies and investments in entrepreneurship and business development.
2. Building Workforce Ecosystems: Expand and strengthen community systems (education, healthcare, housing, childcare, and others) that help Appalachians obtain a job, stay on the job, and advance along a financially sustaining career pathway.
3. Building Infrastructure: Ensure that the residents and businesses of Appalachia have access to reliable and affordable utilities and infrastructure in order to successfully live and work in the region.
4. Building Culture and Tourism: Strengthen Appalachia’s community and economic development potential by preserving and investing in the region’s local, cultural heritage, and natural assets.
5. Building Community: Invest in the capacity of local leaders, organizations, and communities to address local challenges by providing technical assistance and support to access resources, engage partners, identify strategies and tactics, and conduct effective planning and project execution.
Successfully implementing our strategic plan is entirely dependent on the collaboration, cooperation, and commitment of the state and local leaders across our 420-county region. We are convinced that the more we can work across our county and state boundaries, the more likely we are to raise the quality of life across the entire Appalachian Region.
As John F. Kennedy said in his famous speech at Charleston, West Virginia, in 1960: “No community is an island, cut off from the rest of America. What happens in West Virginia happens to all of us.”
The same concept applies to all 420 counties spread throughout the 13 states in Appalachia. Every American should care about the economic health of our region because when Appalachia succeeds, our entire country succeeds.