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Still work to be done in Appalachia

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a series of commentaries from representatives of the Appalachian Regional Commission, an economic development agency for the region.

Since 1965, the Appalachian Regional Commission has collaborated with local and state partners to transform communities, create jobs and strengthen the regional economy. As the ARC federal co-chair, I work collaboratively with the ARC to foster economic growth throughout Appalachia.

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.

The 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 percent. In counties that received ARC investments, employment increased at a 4.2 percent faster pace, and per-capita income increased at a 5.5 percent 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 percent of the region’s population is not served by a community water system, which again accentuates the disparity of our most-distressed counties.

Because the 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 five 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 Appalachian businesses: Strengthen and diversify the region’s economy through inclusive economic development strategies and investments in entrepreneurship and business development.

2. Building Appalachia’s workforce ecosystem: Expand and strengthen community systems (education, health care, housing, childcare, and others) that help Appalachians obtain a job, stay on the job, and advance along a financially sustaining career pathway.

3. Building Appalachia’s 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 regional 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 leaders and capacity: 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.

Implementing our strategic plan depends on collaboration, cooperation and commitment of state and local leaders. We are convinced the more we work across boundaries, the more likely we are to raise the entire Appalachian region’s quality of life.

As John F. Kennedy said in 1960: “No community is an island cut off from the rest of America.”

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.

Gayle C. Manchin is the ARC Federal Co-Chair.

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