Report from the “Livable Regions and Communities in Appalachia” Workshop

 

For cities, “livable communities” often means densely developed downtowns with high-rises and rapid transit, a wide array of restaurants and live-music venues, musicians on every corner. Which is all well and good for the city, but what does a rural livable community look like?  Recently, the Appalachian Regional Commission, the EPA and USDA Rural Development hosted a day-long workshop in Kingsport, TN to explore how we create rural places “where people want to live and businesses want to locate.”

It’s no secret that many of our Appalachian small towns are struggling, with empty storefronts, poor infrastructure, and isolated communities. Presenters from across Central and Southern Appalachia discussed their success stories, strategies and challenges. Each community has unique issues. Western North Carolina is faced with pressures from second home developments, while coalfield communities in Kentucky and West Virginia struggle with out-migration.  But there was one theme that permeated the workshop: communities must be involved in deciding what kind of community they want to be.

Kathy Nothstine with the National Association of Development Organizations outlined five strategies for rural liveable communities (all links open PDFs): Building on Assets; Growing Economic Competitiveness; Enhancing Quality of Life; Creating Efficiencies and Empowering Communities to Decide Their Futures.

Ed Fendley with the EPA described his agency’s “place-based strategy” for investing in Main Streets and traditional town centers. Creating a place for people to gather builds community and pride (and encourages folks to spend money at small businesses!). The ARC and EPA recently teamed up on a grant that would bring a consultant to a small town to assist in acting on a development plan; Spruce Pine, NC received the first grant. Hopefully there will be more in the future!

A number of presentations featured case studies. GroWNC is a non-profit planning group made up of officials from several Western North Carolina counties. The New River Planning District Commission in Virginia has been holding visioning summits to capture residents’ ideas for revitalizing their communities. Clintwood, Virginia built on its traditional music roots to turn itself into a tourist destination. An architect and planner from Auburn, Alabama explained the importance of revitalizing downtowns and making a good first impression. Others discussed forestry, networks, sustainable agriculture, health and education as strategies for development.

The workshop presentations are all available here. I encourage you to take the time to look through them. There’s quite a bit of good information, and it’s always heartening to hear how other communities in central Appalachia are creating places for people and businesses to thrive.