“Another way is possible”

Earlier this month, we featured an op-ed with some great words from Kentucky Rep. Leslie Combs about how the region needs to focus less on pointing fingers and more on working together to create a different future. Today, the Lexington Herald-Leader posted another op-ed in response to Rep. Combs' welcome leadership, this time from MACED's own Justin Maxson, offering some concrete ways forward. What can we do to bring more people – legislators included – on board?

At the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development we believe, as state Rep. Leslie Combs does, that "the time has come to … focus more on how coal-mining regions can move forward" and not only survive, but thrive.

That's why we are very appreciative of Combs' call for a more constructive, solutions-oriented conversation about the region's economic future — a conversation with less heat and more light.

MACED has been working to help the people of Appalachia rebuild their economy from the ground up for almost 40 years. We believe there are some important things that can be done now to help promote economic transition in Appalachia.

First, we agree with her and others who say the state's coal severance tax should be used better.

Currently, only about half of the severance tax dollars collected is returned to our coal-mining counties. County governments then use the funds for several different things, including local infrastructure improvements. It's no secret to the people of Floyd County, and surrounding counties, that the amount of coal severance money available has significantly shrunk within the last year as coal production in the region has continued to decline.

MACED believes the region needs a strong and open economic-development planning process in the region tied to expenditure of coal severance funds, particularly the creation of a permanent fund. Each year a small but meaningful percentage of coal severance tax dollars could be set aside to grow in value for as long as the fund exists.

Annual coal-severance spending on the plan and the interest generated from the permanent fund could be used to implement an economic diversification plan for the region. Several states that rely heavily on extractive industries are reaping the benefits of permanent severance funds, which some of those states established decades ago.

We know this method works for communities in those states, and we believe a similar fund could work for Appalachia, too.

We also believe there are some important strategies that with more attention could be central parts of a new plan in the region:

■ Provide more and better-coordinated support for local enterprises and entrepreneurs through technical assistance, classroom-based training and access to financial support.

■ Grow key economic sectors like local agriculture, energy efficiency, land remediation, tourism, health care and sustainable wood products through focused attention and policy support.

■ Grow new and support existing efforts to provide workers with financial support, retraining and job-matching opportunities tied to growing sectors.

■ Identify key regional investments in important community assets, including broadband and education.

While these and other ideas matter, we know that effective economic development strategies alone are not going to be enough to create the economy the region deserves. We recognize that to move the region forward, there must be more conversations among people from all walks of life — even those who may not initially agree with each other — to create a more broadly held vision that another way is possible.

This process will take all kinds of leaders — those who already exist, like Combs, and those that are just starting out — advocating for a new way forward anchored in a vision of more broadly held wealth that results in a higher quality of life for people and communities. A new planning process tied to the investment of coal severance tax resources is an important step in that direction.

Appalachia's economic transition will not happen overnight. It will take years for an economic renewal to happen, and the process by which it happens will not be easy. Building a sustainable economy in Appalachia is an urgent and long-term effort. We appreciate the leadership from Combs and hope it is the start of a growing chorus of voices working toward a new way forward.

Photo of the mountains at sunrise by flickr user Patrik429, used under Creative Commons license.