September 13, 2017 Read More →

The Beginnings of Economic Transition in Appalachia

Public Radio International:

Solar Holler is partnering with a non-profit called the Coalfield Development Corporation. They own the building. Beyond solar jobs, Coalfield Development is teaching former coal workers skills like woodworking and farming.

Apprentices with Coalfield Development work 33 hours, spend six hours a week at a community college, and three hours engaged in “life-skills mentorship.” Nearly 90 people have entered the program. The name — Coalfield Development — is a nod to the region’s past and future.

“Coal is more than just an employment base here in Appalachia, it’s central to our identity. And that lets you know a sense of our pain the last few years,” says Brandon Dennison, Coalfield Development’s CEO. “No one industry can replace coal, nor should it. We need to diversify and have lots of different business opportunities.”

Half of Coalfield Development’s funding, nearly $2 million, comes from a federal program called the Appalachian Regional Commission. It was created by an act of Congress in 1965, after urging by President John F. Kennedy and then President Lyndon Johnson, to combat the region’s high levels of poverty.

The Trump Administration now wants to defund it. Dennison says that worries him “a lot.”

“If we lost our Appalachian Regional Commission funding, we would have to basically cut our scale of impact in half.”

The mayor of Huntington, Steve Williams, was more blunt about the possibile defunding of the Appalachian Regional Commission: “Well, it’s stupid.”

Williams is a Democrat and is running for Congress next year.

Proponents of the Appalachian Regional Commission say it’s helped dramatically cut rural poverty, improve regional healthcare and education.

Opponents say it’s a waste of taxpayer money. President Trump’s budget calls for the elimination of “unnecessary federal funding,” citing a 1996 government study casting doubt on the Commission’s effectiveness. President Ronald Reagan also tried to defund it repeatedly.

Williams says pulling the plug on the Appalachian Regional Commission would send a clear message: “That says to me that they’re giving up on this area.”

For now, Congress has voted to extend the program’s funding through the end of the year.

Dan Conant, the founder of Solar Holler, stays clear of politics. He’s interested in market economics. And at the end of the day, he thinks he’s betting on a winner.

Conant says, “Within a week of cutting the ribbon on our very first project, we got so much interest around the state that we outstripped the capacity of everybody who knew how to install solar in West Virginia at that point.”

Conant says he’s currently backed up on 16 projects. And Solar Holler needs trained workers to get things moving along.

More: After generations working in coal, young West Virginians are finding jobs in solar

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