Locals discuss barriers, optimism with Thomas
HUNTINGTON - For the time since becoming the co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission about four months ago, Tim Thomas is being immersed in West Virginia and the programs and people the ARC supports.
Thomas is touring the southern portion of the state this week with Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., and his first stop was in Huntington on Monday.
“What has impressed me is the way that West Virginians are looking toward the future and they know the people themselves hold the key to that future,” Thomas said. “That has been a common thread in West Virginia.”
The Appalachian Regional Commission, or ARC, is a federal-state partnership that works to address economic development in 13 Appalachian states, mainly through grants. Coalfield Development, for example, has been supported by ARC grants.
Thomas sat down with business and community leaders Monday afternoon at Coalfield Development’s West Edge Factory for a roundtable discussion about economic diversification and the need for investment in West Virginia.
“Even when the mines were running great, the money isn’t coming here,” said former Mingo County coal miner Jared Blalock, a current Coalfield Development crew member. “Coal mining is good for some families, but it’s not changing things in our communities. We need more options and more opportunities.”
The 11-person panel discussed where they are currently seeing opportunity in southern West Virginia and the barriers they face to reach that opportunity.
David Lieving, Huntington Area Development Corporation president and CEO, said they are excited about site development, aviation and airspace, particularly in Wayne County, and the technology/IT sector.
“Marshall University currently has a cybersecurity program that’s turning out 100 to 110 graduates a year,” Lieving said. “It’s a hands-on program and these students are being recruited from around the country, and even out of the country. That’s a growth sector we can focus on and grow here.”
Bill Woodrum, Robert C. Byrd Institute director of agriculture innovations, said agriculture is also primed to grow in the state.
Tourism was another sector discussed, with Audy Perry, executive director of Heritage Farm and Village, saying the world is ready to learn about Appalachia, so we have to open the door for them to come.
The biggest barrier for all the sectors was, of course, making sure there is a drug-free workforce. Thomas and Jenkins agreed, saying a good job solves a lot of problems.
“The common thread for successful addiction recovery across a broad base of peoples seems to be employment because it instills a sense of self-worth, self-confidence and self-esteem in the individual and presents them with a network of positive influences on a daily basis,” Thomas said.
Jenkins said the Department of Labor is going to bring a pilot program to West Virginia that will combine addiction recovery with job skill development.
Thomas said the ARC will also support programs that combine treatment with hard and soft skill training.
Gail Patton, Unlimited Future executive director, added that people need to be able to build wealth within those jobs for them to be meaningful.
“If Appalachia can be the birth place of the opioid epidemic, we ought to be able to create the solution to that epidemic just by the virtue of having a head start, and we can share those solutions with the rest of the country,” Thomas said.
Other barriers to economic diversity mentioned Monday included connecting with outside markets to sell goods, connecting with out-of-state capital and just being offered opportunity.
Thomas will be in the Mountain State with Jenkins until Wednesday. He will tour McDowell County, ride ATVs on the Hatfield McCoy trails and then head back to Huntington to tour Lily’s Place and meet with Marshall University addiction science leaders.
Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.