The first time I set foot in Appalachia was in 1978 in Harlan, Kentucky. A kid from Baltimore and a student at UK, I was an intern for what was then called the Soil Conservation Service. I was excited to finally get to this region about which I’d read about, but knew nothing about firsthand. My “plan” was to save the people of Appalachia from the poverty that, I thought, defined their lives.
A couple of years ago, Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman wrote a piece about rural America, describing a landscape of dysfunction, despair and inexorable decline. Comparing rural places to cities, he described the enormous gap, not only in wealth and income, but in ideas and innovation. His biggest takeaway was that “no one knows how to fix rural America.”
Four decades apart, Krugman and I made the same mistake. As Wendell Berry has put it, we came to the countryside “with vision, but without sight.” I came as a newcomer with grand plans to make things better; Krugman entered intellectually, analyzing the problems of communities like ours. We had our own notions of how things should be, but little interest in taking stock of what was already here. All vision, no sight.
In the 43 years since my summer in Harlan, I’ve been educated repeatedly by local people about the strengths, assets and opportunities of Southwest Virginia and rural America. People like Jim Baldwin and Scotty Wampler, whose Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission has fostered economic diversification in formerly coal-dependent counties; like Martin Miles, a Lee County tobacco farmer who helped lead a shift to raising organic produce; like Lou Wallace and Terry Vencil, who worked for two decades to redefine the economy of St. Paul, based on the Clinch River; and like Chad Miano, whose eco-friendly logging practices provide quality hardwoods for building while restoring rather than degrading the health of our forests.
In 1968, when the Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission was created as an Economic…
Underlying the efforts of all of these economic development pioneers has been the belief that most of what we need to rejuvenate our communities is already here. Not everything, mind you, but sufficient to build a strong, diverse economic foundation from which to build. The Appalachian Regional Commission has characterized this as an “asset-based” approach, one that builds on our strengths rather than focusing on our deficiencies. It challenges the commonly held belief that rural regions have been “left behind” by dynamic urban centers of innovation. As if city folk don’t depend upon the food, fiber, materials and energy that come from the countryside.
The full potential for bottom-up economic development to build prosperity and resilience in rural Virginia won’t be realized until we shift our public policy to support this proven community development strategy. Three priorities should guide this shift.
First, invest in existing businesses, especially those with potential to expand and adapt to changing circumstances or market conditions. Lawrence Brothers in Bluefield, Virginia, described by Scotty Wampler in the first part of this series, is a perfect example of this investment in adaptive businesses, shifting its manufacturing operations in response to the downturn in Coal, connecting to new markets, adding dozens of jobs in the process. This mirrors the work that Appalachian Sustainable Development and others have done to enable tobacco farmers to produce new crops, supported by emerging markets for healthy foods and state and federal investments in local food infrastructure.
The notion that the coalfield counties are “waiting on the phone to ring” for the next meaningful economic development project is as trite and tired as it is utterly false.
Second, prioritize tax incentives to ensure that businesses that are recruited to rural regions not only create jobs, but do good by the community as well. Tax incentives are public money; they should support businesses that serve a public purpose. Hurley Solar in Buchanan County, Pure Salmon, on the Tazewell County/ Russell County line and the Clinch River Ecological Education Center in St Paul are all examples of enterprises that create jobs while meeting real needs over the long haul. Many more such opportunities exist in sustainable farming, alternative energy, mined land reclamation and health and wellness.
Finally, target infrastructure investments to those that build local capacity, what I’ve come to call “community capital”. Cumberland Plateau’s success in expanding broadband to both residences and businesses exemplifies this. The Appalachian Harvest food and herb hub in Duffield is another example, enabling scores of farmers and forest landowners to prepare and sell their produce, medicinal herbs and other products to buyers across the region.
Building more prosperous and sustainable economies in rural Virginia takes vision. But much of that is already here, if we take the time to see it.
Anthony Flaccavento is a farmer and rural development consultant from Abingdon. His book, “Building a Healthy Economy from the Bottom Up,” has been used across the country by people working to strengthen their own communities.