A federal agency that has provided millions in funding to Athens County and its cities and organizations is one of many agencies President Donald Trump has proposed to eliminate.
The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) is a 52-year-old economic development agency that focuses its attention on Appalachia, a region of the country with high rates of poverty and that lacks in job diversity.
ARC works as a collaborative effort between federal, state and local governments. It includes 13 states and a total of 420 counties, 32 of which belong to Ohio, Athens County being one of them.
Among the goals of ARC are investments in business development, education, skill training and in infrastructure assets such as broadband access, transportation and wastewater systems.
According to ARC, between October 2015 and January 2017, it has supported 662 projects in Appalachia totaling $175.7 million, 41 of which were in Ohio that amounted to nearly $9.7 million. ARC funding for those projects in Ohio were matched by $34.4 million and will attract an additional $5 million in private investments, according to ARC.
Those projects will create or retain 750 jobs and train and educate more than 400 students and workers in Ohio, according to ARC.
Without ARC, Athens County, its local governments and organizations could face major setbacks in support for projects in the future that would benefit the county’s residents.
So how much has ARC invested into Athens County?
“Over the last five years, the Appalachian Regional Commission has invested nearly $2 million in projects for Athens County both at the state and federal levels,” said Mollie Fitzgerald, the senior project specialist for the Athens County Economic Development Council, in an email.
The county commissioners work with ARC to fund water and sewer projects and are currently in the planning stages of a project that would extend sanitary sewer service to residents in subdivisions west of Athens. This project would use money from an ARC grant to fund this project.
Commissioner Lenny Eliason said that without a grant for the previously mentioned project it would become unaffordable and restrict the ability to expand or improve water and sewer services for the county and its communities in the future. That would happen if ARC is eliminated.
According to Athens City Mayor Steve Patterson, in the last 10 years the city of Athens alone received more than $1.3 million in funding from ARC for various projects.
Some of the more significant projects that benefited from those funds include the East State Street access road in front of Holzer Clinic, and Columbus Circle, an access road that supported the development of The Laurels. Patterson said those projects specifically helped support jobs at both Holzer and The Laurels.
Athens also obtained $500,000 from ARC for a $1.9 million project that will extend McKinley Avenue and construct a roundabout at the intersection of Stimson Avenue. Patterson explained that this project would create a viable access road that will benefit businesses such as Athens Mold & Machine and Jackie O’s.
ARC has provided funding to multiple organizations that are either in Athens County or benefit Athens County, including Rural Action, ReUse Industries, Foundation for Appalachian Ohio, the Dairy Barn Arts Center, Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet) Hocking College, Ohio University and the Tri-County Career Center.
The Tri-County Career Center received $250,000 from ARC in 2012 for its Workforce Training Center and again in 2014 for a fume control system in its welding lab.
In 2016, Hocking College received a $1.4 million grant from ARC. Those funds will be used to install workforce development programs through the Appalachia RISES (Revitalizing an Industry-Ready Skilling Ecosystem for Sustainability) Initiative.
The workforce programs would make it easier for non-traditional students to obtain certificates necessary for their professions without having to pursue a two- or four-year degree, according to Sean Terrell, the director of special projects at Hocking College. It will also help to meet the needs of emerging solar and other alternative energy sources.
Terrell said the school wouldn’t have been able to implement those new programs without the funds from ARC.
The $1.4 million awarded to Hocking College was through the POWER (Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization) Initiative, a congressionally funded, multi-agency initiative that uses funds to help coal-impacted communities in 236 Appalachian counties, including Athens County and the 31 other Ohio counties under ARC.
The POWER Initiative sets out to diversify Appalachian communities’ economies, enhance job training and re-employment, create jobs and attract new investment.
The Ohio University Innovation Center received $2 million grant through the POWER Initiative in 2016 to create a regional innovation network in 28 counties in Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky. This program, called the Leveraging Innovation Gateways and Hubs Toward Sustainability (LIGHTS), provides resources for regional entrepreneurs, workforce, companies and community members to help develop their ideas into a business or product.
The LIGHTS program has two designated hubs, the Innovation Center in Athens and the Muskingum County Business Incubator in Zanesville, that offer facilities, equipment and expertise for industry workers and companies. The program also supports several regional gateways in the region, including the AthensMakerSpace in Athens and the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet) in Athens and Nelsonville.
On Tuesday, ARC announced that it has so far invested $75.5 million to those coal-impacted counties through the year-old POWER Initiative to diversify their economies.
ARC currently operates on a budget of $146 million for the 2016 fiscal year and in February requested $120 million for the 2017 fiscal year. Seventy million of that $120 million would be for area development activities and $50 million for furthering the POWER Initiative.
Local officials, organizations and colleges have lobbied the region’s U.S. congressmen to emphasize the need for ARC and to fight the Trump’s budget proposal to eliminate it. Eliason said he was recently in Washington D.C. and spoke with Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers, Rep. Bill Johnson and Sen. Rob Portman about the proposal.
“They all seemed to be favorable in keeping the ARC funded, so we’re hopeful,” Eliason said.
Terrell said Stivers has been proactive in Hocking College’s projects and supports the new workforce initiatives that were a result of grant money from ARC.
“Like all presidential budget proposals, these are suggestions to Congress for this year’s budget levels – and President Trump’s budget is not the starting point for Congress,” Stivers said in a statement provided to The Messenger’s sister paper, The Vinton County Courier. “I believe the Appalachian Regional Commission provides real value to the region, and has been a critical asset…I continue to support this program.”
Both Portman and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, along with several other senators from Appalachian states, signed a letter addressed to Trump demonstrating bipartisan opposition to his proposal to eliminate ARC. The letter urges Trump to reconsider the proposal to eliminate the agency and encourages him to instead consider how the agency could be expanded.
“While ARC has played a prominent role in improving the quality of life in Appalachia, the work of the Commission is not complete,” the letter reads. “Despite the economic progress made in the region, many communities in Appalachia face unemployment rates higher than the national average and lack the high-quality jobs needed to attract and retain workers.”