RICHMOND — Fellow governors have elected Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam the new co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission.
Northam will serve a one-year term and will work closely with the commission’s federally designated co-chair. The commission approves funds for grants for wide-ranging projects in the region every year for things like highway and sewer system improvement projects, technical education, and community health initiatives. For Southwest Virginia, these grants help push it toward diversifying its regional economy hurt by the sharp downtown in coal.
“It’s an honor to be elected to this role, and I look forward to working with leaders across the Appalachian region to advance our shared priorities and support the region’s needs,” Northam said in a statement on Wednesday. “Appalachia is a vital part of Virginia, and America, with a unique history and culture, beautiful landscapes, and resilient people.”
Northam, who is from the Eastern Shore, has been particularly interested in rural Virginia, making numerous trips to western part of the state during his four-year term, which ends the beginning of next year.
“Northam has a rural background, and while it’s not Appalachia — it’s on the other side of the state — it’s wonderful to have a co-chair with rural roots and understands the challenges that rural America faces,” said Shannon Blevins, vice chancellor of the Office of Economic Development and Strategic Initiatives at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. “Just as important, he understands the tremendous opportunities for rural Appalachia.”
The last commission co-chair from Virginia was former Gov. Mark Warner in 2003.
The commission was created by Congress in 1965 to improve the quality of life and promote economic development for more than 25 million people in the 13-state Appalachian region stretching from New York to Mississippi.
The agency is a partnership of federal, state and local governments. Virginia has 25 counties and eight cities extending from Alleghany County down to far Southwest Virginia located within the region and are eligible to receive funding from the commission.
In the fiscal year 2020, from October 2019 to September 2020, the commission invested $162 million in the Appalachian region. During that same time, the agency supported 42 projects in Virginia totaling $11 million. These projects produced an additional $50 million in private investments, and created or retained 4,600 jobs.
Community colleges in Southwest Virginia have received grants to start cybersecurity programs and teach students how to operate drones as part of an effort to transform the region into a technology hub. The agency has worked with groups in the region to set up licensed childcare centers in localities that didn’t have any, an important selling point to businesses interested in locating to Southwest Virginia.
Numerous localities have received grants for sewer and waterline improvements, which is valuable to keeping streams clean. The commission has funded broadband deployment and substance abuse treatment programs, and it’s supported improvement to theaters and trails to bolster rural tourism.
“I am eager to work with the ARC to strengthen Appalachian communities, improving their economic health and livelihood through investments in critical infrastructure like broadband, and services like health care, especially in the fight against opioid addiction,” Northam said. “By exchanging new ideas, from both sides of the aisle, we can bring high quality jobs and economic opportunity throughout the Appalachian region.”
A February 2015 evaluation of the commission’s work showed that in the past 50 years, the agency’s $3.8 billion in non-highway related programs resulted in 312,000 jobs and $10.5 billion in additional earnings. The agency reports that the number of high-poverty counties in Appalachia has been cut in half. The overall poverty rate also decreased since the agency’s founding, from 30% to under 17%.
“If it wasn’t for the Appalachian Regional Commission, Appalachia and rural parts of the United States would be even further behind,” said Travis Staton, president and CEO of United Way of Southwest Virginia. “There are still tremendous gains to be made, and Gov. Northam serving as co-chair will be an opportunity for Virginia to have a larger seat at the table and share its knowledge. He knows what rural means, he knows the difficulties and challenges, but also the opportunity and beauty of rural America.”