Danny Ferguson didn’t like what he saw happening in Lincoln County, West Virginia, where he grew up. The downturn in the coal industry had hit hard, and young people had few job options beyond some fast food places.
“We don’t have nothing else for them to be employed,” Ferguson said. “Lincoln County is in bad shape and Coalfield seemed like the only one willing to take a chance in that area.”
That’s the Coalfield Development Corporation, where Ferguson now works as a crew chief to mentor and train young people in carpentry and other skills. Trainees earn pay while getting experience as they reclaim old buildings, restore furniture, and install solar energy stations. Ferguson said the program offers hope in an otherwise bleak situation.
“The coal is dead, but they’re trying to find something for these kids to go do instead of nothing.”
In another coal town— Paintsville, Kentucky— Melissa Anderson gets a different kind of job training.
Anderson is in a program called TechHire Eastern Kentucky where she gets skills in coding and a shot at employment in a tech company.
TechHire and the Coalfield Development Corporation were both created with support from the Appalachian Regional Commission, or ARC, which has been funding infrastructure and economic development projects in the region for decades. But under President Trump’s so-called “skinny” budget proposal the ARC and 18 other federal agencies would lose all funding, alarming economic development officials and sparking a budget resistance among regional lawmakers -- even those in the president’s party.
The ARC has invested over $3.8 billion in the Appalachian region since its creation during President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” Poverty rates have improved, and fewer counties now fall in the “economically distressed” category, but the region is still home to some of the poorest communities in the country.
Stephanie Tyree, the executive director of the West Virginia Economic Development Hub, says the region’s economic measures show both the progress made by the ARC and why it is still needed.
“The data show they are moving the needle,” she said, “and also show that we are not done.”
Historically, most ARC funding has been for roads and other basic infrastructure. But as the Appalachian highway system nears completion, the ARC has shifted its efforts to encourage economic growth and diversification.
“What we see with these agencies is they have a critical role around innovation and development, particularly in communities that are struggling the most,” Tyree said.
Small rural communities don’t have as much access to investment capital needed to get new projects in motion. Dee Davis, director of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, Kentucky, said the the ARC is especially important for getting new projects off the ground and leveraging other investment. ARC figures show that the federal dollars spent led to around $16 billion more in private investment.
“They don’t have a lot of money but they have strategic money,” Davis said. “They can pave the way for other investors.”
Davis said people outside the region might not appreciate just how big an impact that investment can have, and how big a blow it would be to lose it.
“When you’re living on the ground in those communities then you feel it, because you’re already working as hard as you can to keep the community together,” he said.
What is government for?
One of ARC’s recent initiatives helped launch both the Coalfield Development Corporation and TechHire Eastern Kentucky, along with dozens of other projects. The Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization, or POWER initiative, was funded by Congress to help communities affected by job losses in the Appalachian coal industry. Working with the U.S. Economic Development Administration, or EDA, the POWER initiative has invested nearly $73 million in coal communities in less than two years [see graphic above].
The president’s budget would also eliminate the EDA, even though many of its chief recipients are in places that helped elect him, such as eastern Kentucky, southeastern Ohio, and southern West Virginia.
“It is ironic that a place that voted three-to-one for Trump faces the first and most draconian cuts,” Davis said, noting that a region that contributed to the nation’s energy security needs help to diversify its economic base.
“We have the worst health, the shortest life expectancy,” he said. “If that signals a time for the federal government to cut bait and leave, then you need to raise the question, what does government do?”
Tyree said the work to create new economic opportunity in the region will continue without the federal government investments, but that work will be set back. However, she doubts the White House budget proposal will fare well in Congress, where the ARC has champions on both sides of the aisle.
“They have strong support in Congress,” she said. “I think it is clear to pretty much everyone except the current administration how much value they provide."
Early responses from the region’s elected officials indicate Tyree might be right.
The New York Times reported that Kentucky’s Republican Governor Matt Bevin joined a White House conference call to register his complaints about cuts to the ARC. Eastern Kentucky Congressman Hal Rogers, a powerful Republican presence in the House appropriations process, called the budget cuts to the ARC and EDA “draconian, careless and counterproductive”.
Another Kentucky Republican, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, told television station WYMT that the proposed cuts were “not going to happen.” “We’re not going to allow any cuts to the Appalachian Regional Commission,” he said.
The current federal funding bill is set to expire next month. Congress will need to pass a new budget or an extension before April 28th to prevent a government shutdown.
Not Giving Up
Coalfield Development Corporation mentor Ferguson sat with one of his young trainees, Jacob Dyer, as they described some of their recent projects. The groundwork for a solar facility had been a tough but rewarding job, and Dyer is thinking of pursuing work in the solar industry.
Another project renovated low-income apartments. “If you build something that’s still there years later, it’s a sense of pride,” Dyer said.
Ferguson’s crew is in the process of refurbishing an abandoned factory into a training center. He said the property had become a haven for drug use and vagrancy but will now become a positive force for the community.
“It sums up what Coalfield is,” Ferguson said. “What people are giving up on, we are not giving up on. One way or another we will make it happen.”
West Virginia Public Broadcasting reporter Glynis Board contributed to this story.