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Vision and Involvement: Empowered Communities

by Fred D. Baldwin

Physical infrastructure—highways, access roads, water and sewer lines, telecommunications networks—is economic development's bones and sinew. People acting in concert are its lifeblood.

This article describes how four Appalachian communities or clusters of communities, typically in partnership with regional organizations, are creating or revitalizing what ARC's 1996 Strategic Plan calls "civic infrastructure." Unanimously adopted at a meeting of the Appalachian Regional Commission one year ago, the plan contains five goals, the third of which declares: "The people and organizations of Appalachia will have the vision and capacity to mobilize and work together for sustained economic progress and improvement of their communities."

"Empowered people, empowered communities—this idea is a linchpin for the entire strategic plan," says ARC Federal Co-Chairman Jesse L. White Jr. "No two communities are ever alike, but no one community could ever succeed without its people coming together, organizing, planning, participating." And Mississippi Governor Kirk Fordice, ARC states' co-chairman, observes that "progress in Appalachia can neither be imposed nor imported. While we, on the state and federal levels, have an important responsibility to fulfill, ultimately progress throughout Appalachia will be driven and accomplished by local leaders."

The analogy between physical and civic infrastructure is admittedly imprecise. The technical and financial challenges of building physical infrastructure on Appalachia's terrain can be immense, but the techniques and technology are well understood. That is not always the case with civic infrastructure. A "capacity to mobilize and work together" cannot be guaranteed by codes or charters, much less reduced to engineering diagrams or blueprints. Nevertheless, new partnerships and diverse organizational entities are forming. Like highways and communication lines, they help communities gain access to outside resources and, more important, to the energy of their own citizens. The following examples of civic partnerships are in South Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia, and Mississippi, but they could be anywhere in the Appalachian Region.

The TriPacolet Community Partnership

First, consider the TriPacolet Community Partnership, whose name is almost as big as the three small towns in Spartanburg County, South Carolina, where its members live. The towns are Pacolet, Pacolet Mills, and Central Pacolet; their combined population is about 3,000. Their story illustrates the relationship between civic vision and the capacity to meet community needs.

Ironically, one reason the area's civic infrastructure underwent renewal dates back to decisions about physical infrastructure made a half-century or so ago. At that time, Pacolet elected to connect to the Spartanburg city water system. Pacolet Mills, the site of company-owned housing for workers at a textile mill, had its own water system, provided by the mill; an adjacent area known as Central Pacolet was connected to the same source. The two areas had no incentive to pay for water from another system. The mill's closure in 1983 left the area's economy with serious problems. From time to time, residents talked about consolidating the three small towns, but nothing came of it until 1994. That fall, a coalition of business leaders, government officials, and other citizens formed the TriPacolet Community Partnership. They called a public meeting and were elated by a turnout of roughly 200 people.

"Even though we are three separate towns," says Elaine Harris, chairperson of the partnership, "we have always been one community in spirit. The political lines did not really depict the whole chemistry of the area." The resulting action committees produced tangible results. For example, the Business-Commerce Committee developed a TriPacolet business directory. The Public Safety Committee designed the first map of the area, useful to law enforcement and fire departments and in promoting planned tourism events.

The work of the Livability Committee, chaired by Elizabeth Bryant, a former Spartanburg County Health Department employee, led to a successful grant application for a health clinic. The clinic, housed in a building owned by the city of Pacolet, provides a range of free and low-cost services, including immunizations, pre- and postnatal care for women and infants, and psychological counseling.

In 1995 the partnership helped local leaders take a fresh look at the area's physical infrastructure. This led to a grant to upgrade the Pacolet Mills water and sewer system. In time, the partnership hopes to extend sewer service to a potential industrial park site along a four-lane highway (U.S. 176) bordering Pacolet. Still further in the future, Harris envisions historic restorations, perhaps to include a spectacular civic amphitheater built in Pacolet Mills in the 1890s.

The partnership's Government Committee had the thorniest task—consolidation. In describing that process, Harris chooses her words carefully.

"At times," she says, "it got really interesting." Well, yes. The partnership planned a straw poll, but it was denied use of one town hall as a voting place. "We had to set up a tent outside the town hall for people to vote," Harris recalls. "It was a rainy day and people were furious. I think that was a turning point. Even those who were undecided wanted to put it to a vote. A lot of them were veterans, who had fought in wars, and they were very much offended that they couldn't vote in their own town hall and were out in a tent in the rain."

The favorable straw poll vote was followed by a citizens' petition asking for a formal, binding referendum. In one of the towns, the partnership had to file for a court order to hold the referendum. Ultimately, in November 1996, about two years after the partnership formed, the voters of Pacolet and Pacolet Mills agreed to merge their governments. Final approval of a new charter is expected this summer. Because a majority of voters in Central Pacolet voted not to consolidate, maps of the new entity (whose name is yet to be decided) will show a doughnut-like shape for at least the immediate future. Harris says, however, that even skeptics are recognizing the benefits of joint action.

"We have grown in the past two years," she says. "We feel that because we've been a positive group of citizens trying to make the area better, we've been able to attract more services."

Harris gives great credit to help from the Greenville-based South Carolina Appalachian Council of Governments (ACOG), which in turn receives support from ARC. She particularly praises Joe Newton, program manager of ACOG's Governmental Services Division. Newton insists that the citizens of the three small towns "deserve all the 'attaboys.' These guys went after several things . . . and they got them."

The Owsley County Action Team

As a second example, consider the "sustainable communities initiative" being piloted by the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED). MACED, based in Berea, Kentucky, serves communities across Kentucky and Central Appalachia and has a long-standing commitment to strengthening civic infrastructure. One of its publications, Communities by Choice, states that "communities are like people. They become what they are partly because of the choices they have made—or failed to make."

The MACED strategy focuses on choices around three issues: economy, ecology, and equity.

For example, one of its pilot sites is Owsley County, Kentucky, an economically distressed county whose total population is just over 5,000. Jeanette Rogers is the director of community development for the Owsley County Action Team. The team was formed in 1992 to develop an economic diversification study funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service. That led to creation of the Eastern Kentucky Goat Producers Association. That group, still active, works to improve the quality of local herds and the marketing of meat goats.

"I've never had a piece of livestock in my life, but I know a lot about goats now," Rogers laughs. "Our herd was mostly Nubians, a milk goat. They're using artificial insemination to develop a Boer goat, an extremely heavy meat goat. They're double or triple the size of a typical goat."

A similar project involves a vegetable growers' co-op, intended to reduce the area's dependence on tobacco as a cash crop. It's since expanded to include farmers from eight counties.

"We call the groups that form out of the action team 'spin-offs,' " says Rogers, "But they aren't spun off into the ether to be seen nevermore. They're independent groups but still under our umbrella."

Another spin-off, the Booneville/Owsley Industrial Authority, has achieved a triumph. A team member's contact with a former classmate, entrepreneur Bill Deaton, resulted in Deaton's bringing a data processing firm, Image Entry, to an Owsley County industrial park. Opening this spring, Image Entry is expected to employ 150 workers; that's 3 percent of the county's total population.

Rogers has a long list of economic and ecological successes, including a tree-planting project and a pre-festival street cleanup that brought out dozens of people. Two new efforts are just getting off the ground: a credit union and the Business Network, supported by a grant from the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation. The network will enable businesspeople and would-be entrepreneurs to share expertise and perhaps pool resources for benefits like group health insurance.

One action team spin-off may, over the long haul, be more important than any of the rest. It's the Owsley County Fund for Excellence, a long-term strategy for improving local schools and reducing a high dropout rate. It's an idea reflecting what MACED's Communities by Choice says about equity: "Equitable communities consider not only how their choices affect current residents but also how they will affect the choices available to future generations."

The fund has a three-pronged strategy: minigrants to teachers for special projects, student scholarships, and an incentive program designed to encourage kids to stay in school while teaching them economic and social lessons. The third of those three strategies may be the only one of its kind in the entire nation. Some years ago, news media reported a millionaire's commitment to a class of young children in a low-income urban school: he'd pay college costs for all who graduated from high school. Owsley County citizens committed themselves to a shoestring-budget version of that idea, adding their own improvements.

Basically, the fund is handing over a sum of money, as large as it can afford, to a seventh-grade class. The students can manage that money in any way they choose: deposit it in a bank account or invest it in the stock market, a local business, or an entrepreneurial activity of their own, such as raising livestock. They'll have adult advisors, but the choices, risks, and rewards will be theirs alone. Those who graduate from high school will be allowed to divide the entire sum among themselves, plus any interest or profits (or less any losses). Students transferring into the school system will receive shares prorated according to how long they were enrolled; dropouts, however, will get nothing, even if they drop out during their senior year. Provisions will be made for delayed graduations, but passing a GED exam won't do. The only ticket to sharing in the cash is an Owsley County High School diploma.

So far the Fund for Excellence has raised about $7,000 and is expecting another $10,000. It has committed at least $2,000 to the school system's current seventh-graders, now numbering about 80 students. The fund expects to be able to increase that commitment to at least $5,000.

Beyond providing students with a financial incentive to stay in school, the plan teaches group decision making, financial management concepts (in a county where a high percentage of families don't have checking accounts), and how an economic system of risks and rewards works to produce growth.

"Through the years I've seen too many bright, potentially valuable members of society drop out," says Molly Turner, outreach coordinator for the Owsley County Action Team and volunteer president of the Fund for Excellence. "Many times it was because they didn't have support and realize what they could do."

Turner sees community fund-raisers, visits from community leaders to the schools, and determined efforts to involve parents as the best parts of the incentive program. "If we had some extremely wealthy person who could do the whole thing, it might not be as good," she says.

Owsley County citizens-leaders are deservedly proud of their agricultural cooperatives and other projects, and they're delighted to have attracted a new, 150-job business. But their most imaginative achievement may well be their investment in future civic infrastructure, one seventh-grade class at a time.

The Dungannon Development Commission

No one should suppose, of course, that a lasting civic infrastructure is built in a day. A third example illustrates both the difficulties and the rewards of a long-term commitment to community development. The Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises (FAHE), a coalition of 26 organizations in four states, had compiled (as of June 1996) a remarkable record of home construction and improvement: 1,333 new units; 2,552 major rehabilitations; 7,807 minor repair jobs; and 10,664 weatherizations. But FAHE is also committed to building community-based organizations. (See "A Home of Our Own," Appalachia, Winter/Spring 1994.)

David Lollis, FAHE's executive director, when asked about "civic infrastructure," mentions one of FAHE's smaller partners, the Dungannon Development Commission (DDC). Based in the small town of Dungannon (population 249 people, according to the 1994 Census), Virginia, the DDC serves all of Scott County's approximately 23,000 citizens.

"There's been a group of people, almost all women," Lollis says, "that for 15 or 20 years now have just refused to give in to defeat. Last year they pulled off a deal where they produced 15 units of housing at a site called Blueberry Hill. Back probably 20 years ago, they tried to do something that didn't work, but they learned from it. They've been hammering away ever since."

The DDC began in 1979 as a community-based nonprofit group incorporated in an attempt to improve working conditions at the town's main business, a sewing factory that then had about 100 employees, mostly women. According to Nancy Robinson, executive coordinator of the DDC, volunteers "just took things into their own hands, repainted, and fixed the place up."

Next the group decided that the community had a desperate need for better housing. They found it impossible, however, to get an application for assistance approved by the federal agency to which they applied.

"Topography, you know," Robinson says. "Too many hills. I wrote them and said, 'I can't help it if God gave us more land than we knew what to do with, so he stacked it up and piled things on top of each other.' "

Next the group—sometimes acting as the DDC, sometimes as the "Women's Club"—persuaded Mountain Empire Community College, located in Big Stone Gap, to open a satellite enter at Dungannon's old train station, which the Women's Club had converted into a civic center. That in turn led to the DDC's starting (with assistance from ARC) Virginia's first literacy program.

Economics classes from Mountain Empire also led to the formation of a sewing cooperative, whose ability to pay good wages boosted wages at the privately owned factory. Then, in 1984, the sewing factory burned down. There were suspicions of arson, but no charges were filed.

"I never will forget it," Robinson says. "I came into town that morning, and there all these women were just crying. And they stopped me in the middle of the road, and they said, 'Nancy, you all [the DDC] helped get the cooperative going. Now build us another sewing factory.' Well! To make a long story short, we did. The only reason it worked was that we didn't know it wouldn't work".

They called the scheme the "Phoenix project" after the mythical bird that bursts spontaneously into flame but comes back to life from its own ashes. In 1988, four years after the first factory burned, a new community-owned factory opened. For a short time, it employed nearly 100 people, but then it folded from foreign wage competition. The sewing cooperative later suffered the same fate.

Nevertheless, the Phoenix project produced lasting spin-offs. It attracted a branch bank to the community, Dungannon's first. The search for suitable land for building the factory led to a Community Development Block Grant for a sewer system, replacing a river-based system that had rendered Dungannon's water undrinkable when the river flooded. And, after contacts with FAHE, the DDC renewed its interest in housing; it succeeded in getting one house built and assisting six other families with home ownership loans.

The DDC also launched a volunteer construction program, drawing people from all around the United States and Canada to work on housing projects. Outsiders work side by side with local coordinators, who develop construction and leadership skills that regularly lead to good jobs.

In the spring and summer of 1996, more than a hundred volunteers were needed to complete the 15-unit housing project at Blueberry Hill mentioned by FAHE's director Lollis. Robinson and her co-worker Wanda Duncan (also a founding member of the DDC) knew that the DDC had to complete the project by the end of the year or lose tax credits crucial to the project's success. After a two-year delay in securing start-up approvals from government agencies, the two women decided to act independently. Here's how Robinson, a natural-born storyteller, summarizes what they told the agencies:

"We said, 'We're a-building! You're going to have to catch up with us now!' You talk about pushy? We pushed!" She can laugh about it now, but it wasn't funny then. A contractor and the small army of volunteers finished on schedule, and the houses were occupied as fast as they could be built. Robinson emphasizes the value of help from FAHE, especially from Jack Rivel, FAHE's director of technology and housing finance, who made frequent trips to Dungannon, bringing years of nonprofit construction experience. In appreciation, the DDC named one of the streets in Blueberry Hill "Jack Rivel Way."

Among the DDC's current projects: a summer youth program with the "hidden agenda" of developing leadership, and a program of ecotourism for Scott and neighboring counties, assisted by the U.S. Forest Service. The ecotourism program includes reclamation of a large tract of land along the Clinch River and restoration of a historic corporate hunting lodge acquired in cooperation with the Nature Conservancy. The lodge, opened in 1996, is available for conferences and retreats.

"One thing leads to another," Robinson says. "We're trying to go with what the community needs are, not with what we think our needs might be. It's really hard. It really is. But you can't give up. You just have to keep plugging away."

The CREATE Foundation

The three examples of civic infrastructure described so far have all involved small communities organizing on a local scale, helped by regional technical assistance groups. The fourth and final example is itself a small region: the 15 Appalachian counties of northeastern Mississippi. "We wanted to set a direction for the region and work on those issues that would bring us together," says Mike Clayborne, president of the CREATE Foundation, based in Tupelo.

In 1995 CREATE announced the establishment of a Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi, modeled on a process used by the Southern Growth Policies Board for the Commission on the Future of the South. The commission is composed of 32 citizens nominated by local development organizations from the 15 participating counties.

The commission's goals fall under three headings: human resource development, infrastructure development, and community and economic development. For example, human resource goals include: "Encourage the attainment of a 90 percent immunization rate in the region." The entire list takes up only two pages of a large trifold brochure.

"We have chosen to keep it simple," says H.L. "Sandy" Williams, president of Coca-Cola Bottling Works in Corinth and chairman of the commission. "And we are trying very hard to establish benchmarks from which to measure our progress."

Charles Gulotta, president of the Alliance, an economic and community development group in Corinth, notes that most industrial parks are owned by city or county entities and, in effect, compete against each other. "Why not have multicounty entities, such as the state-operated Yellow Creek industrial site in Tishomingo County?" he asks. "We as a region are more closely linked today than we've ever been with roads and communications capacity, but unless we become more organized in this network of people and leaders in the public and private sectors, we'll not take full advantage of how close we have become."

Billy Crews, publisher of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal and a member of the CREATE board, agrees: "The next phase of development is as a region. The market is organized that way."

One goal is the establishment or maintenance of at least one economic development organization in each of the 15 counties. As Clayborne says, "If you don't have someone to work with on a local basis, you can't have strong regional development." Indeed, the CREATE strategy for development involves an even more basic level: the conviction, in Clayborne's words, "that all change starts within . . . that you have to change the person before you change the community." Another goal, therefore, is that citizens in each county be afforded opportunities to participate in the "Seven Habits" workshops of the Covey Leadership Center, based on the work of Stephen R. Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Tupelo resident Henry Dodge, president of a ten-state chain of family-owned convenience stores, explains the rationale. "The name of the game," he says, "is to create a culture where everybody thinks. I call it 'leadership at the water fountain,' not just leadership in the boardroom. How do you get that? The obvious answer is to train everybody to be a leader."

During 1996, well over 300 people participated in three-day workshops held in five communities. With the help of Covey-trained local trainers, as many as 1,000 are expected to attend during 1997. In fact, Dodge says, Covey is studying the area's progress to learn how his principles can be applied to an entire community, as distinct from an individual, family, or firm. Northeast Mississippi, like other areas, has its share of old local rivalries. But the CREATE Foundation is betting that the Covey message, "Interdependence is a higher value than independence," will prevail from top to bottom.

"There are these three levels," Clayborne sums up. "Regional . . . local . . . personal. Any one of the three could have come first, but we're doing all of them at once."

Common Themes

What do these four examples of civic partnerships have in common?

At least three patterns seem to emerge: (1) a growing conviction that problem solving and growth require a common vision (for example, TriPacolet's and CREATE's determination to transcend old divisions); (2) a willingness to create broad-based groups that work closely with local government but are not themselves governmental agencies (true for all four areas); and (3) an eagerness to take advantage of outside expertise (as provided by ACOG, MACED, FAHE, and, at least as a model, the Commission on the Future of the South).

The list may well be longer. The Appalachian Regional Commission is exploring the power of the idea of civic infrastructure by sponsoring an Appalachian Community Learning Project in partnership with the Rensselaerville (New York) Institute. Five-person teams of civic leaders from participating communities will meet throughout the spring to learn and share ways of promoting civic capacity goals.

As Governor Fordice sums it up: "We should provide the leadership and vision in a supporting role to the progressive people who are determined to build better communities." And Federal Co-Chairman White points out that "there are many excellent examples of 'community leadership' or 'civic infrastructure' in Appalachia. It's the process that is the key thing here."

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.