CHARLESTON – Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin joined representatives from the federally funded Appalachian Regional Commission and U.S. Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration in announcing $10 million in funding for nine projects aimed at revitalizing West Virginia communities suffering from the economic impacts of the coal industry downturn.
The federal funds come in the form of POWER Initiative grants, part of President Barack Obama's Power Plus program, a public-private partnership. Congress allocated program funding in December as part of the fiscal year 2016 federal budget negotiations.
With funding in hand, ARC put out an open call for project proposals totaling as much as $68.8 million in March. Twenty-four matched up well with the ARC and USEDA criteria, ARC spokeswoman Wendy Wasserman told The West Virginia Record.
¨We made $68.8 million available to fund economic development projects in coal-impacted communities in order to make them stronger and more sustainable,¨ she said. ¨The criteria were very specific – the projects should be part of a greater strategy with regional impact. Besides that, they focus on entrepreneurs and building business clusters, especially building out broadband infrastructure and services, which is an important component of economic development strategies and creating a competitive workforce.¨
In total, ARC works across the Appalachian region – 420 counties stretching from northern Mississippi to southern New York. West Virginia won more POWER Initiative awards than any other state, Wasserman noted.
The $9.98 million in POWER Initiative grants will fund a variety of projects in coal-impacted communities throughout the state, including tourism development, training in entrepreneurship and a Coalfield Development Corp. project that will help West Virginians in coal-impacted communities find employment in agriculture, construction and energy, Wasswerman explained.
Eight of the nine are ¨shovel-ready¨ projects ready to be implemented. In addition, ARC awarded a $200,000 planning grant to conduct a feasibility study for Tomblin's plan to repurpose the closed Hobet mountaintop coal mine site.
Operating for 40 years, Hobet provided steady employment for generations of West Virginians but wound up being shuttered following years of changing ownership, cuts in jobs and benefits and finally, the national drive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and environmental pollution. Once heavily forested, the mountaintop site is now bare, not producing coal and owned by a conservation group. Toxic runoff is diverted away from the Ohio River and the site will require extensive cleanup and restoration work, according to officials.
“With the downturn in the coal industry, we in the state and federal governments owe it to those who have lost jobs through no fault of their own to do everything possible to create new economic growth,” Tomblin stated.
“These POWER grants represent a positive step toward that goal," he added. "The projects being funded envision a West Virginia where promising new job opportunities are a reality. I am especially proud that the Hobet project is being supported as we continue planning for the best ways turn that site into an economic engine for southern West Virginia.”
Following on the ARC-USEDA POWER Initiative awards, the White House on Aug. 24 announced another $38.8 million in funding for 29 economic and workforce development projects across the 13 states in which ARC and USEDA are working to stimulate socioeconomic development and offset the impacts of declining use of coal and changes in electricity generation and power markets.