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Progress through Partnership: Reflections on ARC's 40th Anniversary

by Fred D. Baldwin

The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) was created in 1965 in response to a report by the President's Appalachian Regional Commission (PARC) documenting the effects of poverty and isolation on the Appalachian Region. "Graphs and tables," the PARC authors wrote, "can hardly relate the acutely personal story of a child in a remote valley, his horizon of opportunity limited to the enclosing hills . . ." No one would describe Appalachia that way today. The Region has made tremendous strides in educational opportunities, infrastructure improvements, health care, job training, and job creation. Most socioeconomic gaps between the Region and the rest of the nation have narrowed dramatically, and in some parts of the Region they have vanished altogether. Graphs and tables can hardly capture the stories of today's Appalachian children, whose horizons are not only national but global; or their parents' grounds for confidence that better educational opportunities and locally created jobs will empower those children to cherish their heritage as they shape their own histories.

Appalachia's prospects are far brighter now than in 1965, but challenges remain. Some are much the same as those facing the rest of the nation--global competition, socioeconomic gaps between rural and metropolitan communities. Others, like over-reliance on extractive industries and manufacturing, continue to have special relevance for Appalachia. In ARC's 40th anniversary year, Federal Co-Chair Anne B. Pope and 2005 States' Co-Chair Bob Taft, governor of Ohio, reflected on how the Region has changed during the past four decades and on prospects and strategies for further change.

ARC Federal Co-Chair Anne B. Pope

Q: The Appalachian Region has made real progress during the 40 years since the Appalachian Regional Commission was created. What is left to do?

Appalachia has made great progress. The poverty rate has been cut in half. The number of distressed counties has dropped from 223 in 1960 to 77 in 2006. Infant mortality has been cut by two-thirds. Our high school graduation rate is now over 75 percent, close to the national average. I'm proud of ARC's part in this.

But the world has not stood still. In the 1960s and 1970s the Region's businesses had to compete in a national economy. Today the Region has to compete in a global economy. Forty years ago a high school education was generally enough to get someone ready to find and keep a good job. Now people need at least some post-secondary education or continuing skills training.

While significant gains have been made, there are still areas where we need to improve if the Appalachian Region is going to reach socioeconomic parity with the nation. The Appalachian Region still has fewer of the best and more of the worst when it comes to the economic health of the nation's counties. There are critical unmet basic infrastructure needs--some areas still don't have adequate water or sewer services. We need to complete the Appalachian Development Highway System to connect the Region to the nation's transportation grid. And parts of the Region do not yet enjoy the same access to health care, education, and job opportunities. And we will continue working to make sure every part of Appalachia has, and knows how to benefit from, high-speed Internet access.

Q: The presidential commission that created ARC emphasized the Region's geographical isolation. Is that still an issue?

Less so than it used to be. The lynchpin of the ARC program has always been the Appalachian Development Highway System, which is now 85 percent complete or under construction. Many more of our communities are connected to the rest of the nation and to each other. But we still have a long way to go. One of our strategic plan goals is to open another 250 miles of that highway system within ten years. We're also promoting strategic investments in telecommunications infrastructure, which is necessary to connect us to the world.

Q: How has the nature of the ARC mission evolved with respect to job creation?

Back in the early days of ARC, the focus was on bringing jobs into the Region. We were, and still are, heavily dependent on manufacturing. So while traditional economic development will continue, the focus now is on creating jobs from within. That means more emphasis on job retention and entrepreneurship.

Q: What do we know about the payoffs from ARC's past efforts?

I've mentioned some of them. We've also helped over 820,000 Appalachian households enjoy clean water and sewer facilities. That and helping support or build 400 rural health-care facilities has contributed to the two-thirds drop in infant mortality rates. The 700 vocational education centers we've supported have helped many thousands of our residents complete GED programs and develop job skills. And there's the Appalachian Higher Education Network. It was based on a program in Ohio, and it's spread to eight other states. A study showed double-digit gains in college-going rates for high schools with network centers--often around 25-30 percentage points in the program's first years.

Q: As it seeks to become both nationally and globally competitive, does Appalachia enjoy any special advantages?

Great question! There's the Region's natural resources. Appalachia produces as least 35 percent of the nation's coal, and it has other energy-related resources like natural gas, and ways to develop alternative energy. We're known nationally and internationally for our timber resources, not to mention the natural beauty of the Region. ARC's Asset-Based Development Initiative helps people build on their specific local advantages, and it helps them find innovative ways to turn what seem like liabilities into assets--for example, turning a brownfield or an area scarred by mining into an industrial park.

Our culture is also an asset--things like our rich musical heritage. Appalachia is a great place to live. It's a great place to raise a family. Our people have a sense of place and a strong connection to the land. So when we're competing for talent, our quality of life is a huge asset.

Q: When you travel within the Region, what do you advise state and local leaders as they plan for the future?

When I travel across Appalachia, I'll see what look like almost identical communities--same general size, same natural resources, and so on. But some are moving forward and some aren't. The ones moving forward have three things in common. First, they have a vision and a plan. Second, their plans are regional, not for just one community or one county. Third, everything in those plans is locally driven--the goals and the strategy for meeting those goals. We often say around here, "If the problem is in the community, then the solution is in the community." They already know that they need infrastructure investments, including in telecommunications. They know that workforce development is extremely important. What I tell them is that real change can't come from outside. They have to find ways to make it happen from within. Not long ago, in one of our poorest counties in Appalachia, a local official was telling me about his community's plan to use their very limited dollars to--in his words--"wire up" the town. When I asked him why that was so important, he answered, "It will give us a chance." "A chance for what?" I asked. "Why," he said, "a chance to compete, of course. How could anyone ask for more than that?"

Q: What part of ARC's mandate do you consider to be central to the agency's future role?

The main reason that ARC has been so valuable is that it's always been a partnership. We help people become competitive by helping them leverage other investments, public and private.

For example, Microsoft has committed $2 million in software grants to help our rural communities get broadband telecommunications. And the ARC-National Geographic Geotourism MapGuide to Appalachia is a wonderful way to bring attention to Appalachia's natural beauty and the high quality of our creative class.

One of our many public partners is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We have a joint initiative with it to reduce the impact of diabetes, which is one of the Region's major health problems. We're also working with the CDC in some rural areas to get better screening for cervical cancer.

A major deficit in the Region has been in private investments. ARC has put $37 million into revolving loan funds, and that money has leveraged about $950 million in other resources, helping to create tens of thousands of jobs. Our biggest returns on investment have come, and always will come, from helping Appalachian communities bring other partners to the table.

Ohio Governor Bob Taft, 2005 ARC States' Co-Chair

Q:Back in 1965, when ARC was created, the notion of a "states' co-chair" was an unusual structural innovation for a federal program. How has that model stood the test of time?

This unique partnership model has stood the test of time because it emphasizes the importance of partnerships between all levels of government, and I believe it is one of the reasons ARC has been so effective. An approach such as this allows for flexibility and creativity and avoids the "one size fits all" brand that so many government programs have.

The Ohio Appalachian Center for Higher Education, for example, unites 10 Ohio public colleges and universities with K-12 schools and the private sector to increase the region's college-going rate, which is only half the national average. This concept started in Ohio in 1993, and in 1998 ARC used it as a model for the Appalachian Higher Education Network in other states.

Q: In some states in the Appalachian Region, the number of Appalachian counties is fairly small. How does that affect the involvement of those governors in the program?

Each state has participated actively regardless of the size of the geographic area that comprises the state's Appalachian region. ARC is very effective at using regional models without state boundaries. This allows all communities to benefit from a variety of initiatives.

Q: Despite a lot of progress over 40 years, the Region's distressed counties continue to be concentrated in its central core. What are the prospects for changing that?

As governor of a state that contains a part of that central core, I am optimistic that the prospects for change are good, in part because of ARC investments in education, health care, and economic development. As a result, the number of distressed counties continues to shrink. ARC is committed to ensuring that this trend continues.

Q: Except for West Virginia, all states in the Region contain a mix of Appalachian and non-Appalachian counties. Do ARC-supported projects have an impact in other parts of these states?

There are regional organizations in each state that cross jurisdictional and geographic lines so that benefits certainly go beyond the Appalachian Region. What is good for Appalachia is good for all of Ohio.

Q: ARC often funds smaller projects than most federal agencies do. Why is that?

This gets to the heart of this partnership between the states and Commission. The flexibility allows these federal dollars to have a bigger impact, sometimes, on much smaller projects than most other federal agencies would consider for funding. I find this to be one of ARC's biggest strengths. It allows us to prioritize projects that we know will have a high potential return on investment but may not otherwise be suitable for other, national, standardized programs.

For example, ARC has assisted with small-scale equipment purchases for community computer centers giving youths and adults a central Internet access location in areas where technology access is not available or is too costly for residents. It has also provided startup costs to establish the Web site, which promotes tourism and economic development in the region and attracts more than 750,000 hits a month.

Q: If we were having this conversation ten years from now, what would you expect to have changed?

It would be my hope that most, if not all, of the counties ARC now classifies as "transitional" will have achieved parity with the rest of the country. My other expectation would be that the Appalachian core--where most of the distressed counties are located--will have recaptured their young talent because these areas will be recognized as desirable places to live, work, and raise a family. What is encouraging is that the most recent census figures already back this up. In Ohio, Appalachia saw a population increase of 6 percent in the decade after 1990, an acceleration greater than in any of the decades since the middle of the past century. We need to nurture this trend to help it continue.

Interviews conducted by Fred D. Baldwin, a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
March 2006