Three hundred and fifty community activists from around Appalachia, which includes thirteen states from southern New York to northern Mississippi, gathered in Pittsburgh this week for a conference about transforming the region. While nationally Appalachia is often portrayed as a poor, rural region suffering from the loss of coal jobs, Earl Gohl, federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, which sponsored the two-day conference, says there is also a lot of excitement about new ways to grow the region’s economy. “Appalachia has a whole variety of opportunities and assets, and as we grow and we move forward, you’re going to see that develop,” he says.

LISTEN: “Appalachian “Innovators” Offer New Ideas for the Region”

The conference opened with a discussion about the opioid epidemic, and other health problems, and explored why and how the region can address health as part of a stronger, sustainable future. Gohl says Pittsburgh is a good model for Appalachian communities, because it has used not just health care, but community health, to improve its economy and quality of life. “I think the experience of Pittsburgh really lays the foundation for the experience of the rest of Appalachia,” he says. Like Pittsburgh, Gohl sees the region’s future tied to universities, technology, health, and entrepreneurship.

Other sessions looked a ways to boost entrepreneurs, including those working toward healthy pursuits, like outdoor recreation and tourism, reclaiming lands harmed by coal mining, and marketing the region’s locally made products.

RECLAIMING AND BRANDING APPALACHIA

Appalachian Headwaters was started last year in Lewisburg, West Virginia. Vice President of Programs, Kate Asquith, explains that they are working with academic experts, engineers, coal mining companies, community groups and landowners to re-establish native hardwood forests and restore water quality on abandoned mountaintop removal and other surface mining sites. Asquith says their work has potential for agro-forestry and other sustainable economic activities. They plan to train displaced and underemployed workers in south central Appalachia in apiculture and horticulture, including honey production, bee colony sales, and native plant cultivation, which they expect will also benefit reforestation efforts.

Appalachian Headwaters trains displaced and underemployed Appalachians in beekeeping. (Photo: Appalachian Headwaters)

Another project highlighted at the conference is called the Pennsylvania Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship. Founder Tataboline Enos says it brings together conservation and economic development in the two million acres of public land spanning twelve counties of north central PA. Visitors currently spend $1.7 billion dollars a year in that region, and Enos is trying to capitalize on goods and services based in the area, by branding it “PA Wilds.” They have the Wilds Cooperative of Pennsylvania, where artisans, breweries, B&Bs, retailers and restaurants get licensed to carry the brand.

THE PUSH FOR A PETROCHEMICAL INDUSTRY

Others at the conference want the region branded for something else: petrochemical manufacturing. Shell is already building a multi-billion dollar petrochemical plant, known as an ethane cracker in Beaver County, northwest of Pittsburgh. It will use oil and gas to create the building blocks needed to make plastics. TPP Global, a petrochemical company based in Thailand, has already purchased land in nearby Belmont County, Ohio, and is expected to decide by year’s end if it will build another massive cracker plant in the region.

Denise Brinley, Senior Energy Advisor at Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, says even though it wouldn’t be in PA, her office is still in favor of locating the TPP plant in Ohio, “One plant in the region could be an anomaly, but two is a market,” she says.

On July 29, FirstEnergy completed demolition of the coal-fired R.E. Burger Power Station in Belmont County, Ohio, paving the way for future development. Photo: FirstEnergy Corp via flickr

Ethane is a byproduct of shale gas production, and right now, she said, 100% of the region’s ethane is exported to the Gulf, Canada, and Norway. If it isn’t exported, Brinley says Appalachia produces enough of it to support four additional cracker plants, which would mean tens of thousands of jobs.

Brinley did not address the air pollution and health concerns posed by ethane crackers.

ROOM FOR ALL PLAYERS?

Conference organizers say there is room for many kinds of economic development. Commission Co-chair Earl Gohl says he’s inspired by millennials in West Virginia and elsewhere who are committed to building the economy around the area’s local food, natural beauty, and educational institutions. He expects new ideas and connections on how to support these types of projects and businesses to come from the conference.

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Photo (top): The 339-acre Kinzua Bridge State Park, located in McKean County. A new visitors center opened last year to attract more tourists to the region. The park also houses the ‘PA Wilds Conservation Shop’ that offers visitors items from local artisans and businesses, and materials that are branded for the Appalachian region. Photo: Jeff Walters / flickr