Senior Economic Policy Advisor to the White House Pays Official Visit to Appalachian Kentucky
May 13, 2015
Ivy Brashear, MACED, (606) 233-5440
Eric Dixon, Appalachian Citizens' Law Center, (606) 633-3929
Robert Gipe, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, (606) 620-3913
Benham, Ky. — Jason Walsh, a senior economic policy advisor to the White House, participated in a listening tour on Tuesday about economic transition efforts in eastern Kentucky. This was the first official visit by a White House advisor to the region since the announcement of the administration's POWER+ Plan and Initiative, which are aimed at increasing economic growth in the region.
Walsh attended the second Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) summit in Pikeville on Monday, spoke at a reception with local elected officials on Monday night, and then toured Benham and Lynch on Tuesday. There, he heard from more than 50 organizations and community leaders about economic transition projects and efforts already underway in the region.
Walsh heard from a panel of people working on wide-ranging transition efforts, including youth engagement, local foods, energy efficiency, art and culture, and local philanthropy. Panelists spoke about opportunities and challenges facing the region and their work, and provided ideas about what needs to happen to grow just economic transition.
Blake Enlow, Executive Director of COAP, an affordable housing organization, described the role that energy efficiency programs can play in providing affordable housing, creating jobs, and helping people save money on their energy bills. "We are trying to include some kind of energy efficiency measures in every house we work on. It's an essential part of helping people be able to afford to keep their homes, stretch their dollars, and keep their money circulating in the local community."
Deyvon Creech, a young artist from Harlan County, described the value of her experience working with the Higher Ground Community Theater project. "We go into communities in Harlan County, collect oral histories, and then transform those stories into community theater. Our most recent production was called Find A Way. The focus was to open up dialogue in the community about economic transition."
Ada Smith spoke about workforce development initiatives developed by Appalshop in Whitesburg to provide young people in the region with media, communications and technology skills and help them access college credits and other professional certifications. "The idea a small grant from the federal Office of Economic Opportunity can create an organization that has sustained itself and employs more than 20 people nearly 50 years later is an incredible success story."
After the panel presentations, Walsh followed up with many questions aimed at better understanding critical opportunities that exist to create jobs and promote regional economic transition. He also shared information about what the Obama Administration is doing to support just transition work in eastern Kentucky and Central Appalachia, including the POWER+ Plan and Initiative, which were announced earlier this year.
The proposed POWER+ Plan could release $1 billion in federal abandoned mine lands funds for use on economic transition projects in the region. Walsh said that money could be used to put eastern Kentuckians back to work reclaiming former mined lands in ways that would stimulate and support economic development. Through the POWER Initiative, the Administration has already secured the use of millions of already appropriated federal funds for economic and workforce development projects in eastern Kentucky.
"Hopefully we can all agree that communities that are among our nation's most economically distressed and who have helped keep the lights on for this country deserve help from the federal government in their time of need," he stated. "These ideas represent one step. We want to take a bunch of steps. We don't have any time to waste. We've got a lot of folks who are struggling. We need to do as much as we can as soon as possible."
Walsh visited with community leaders in Lynch to learn about community revitalization efforts there. Leaders shared the history of the community, and then gave a glimpse of the legacy impacts of abandoned coal mines. Two recent mine blowouts in less than two months have left the residents of Lynch without drinkable water.
Throughout the day, community members, local leaders and nonprofit groups shared with Walsh their vision for a brighter eastern Kentucky future — one that could be made significantly more achievable through the POWER+ Plan and Initiative. It was important for community members that Walsh take this message of hope for the future back with him to Washington.
Near the end of the conversation Harlan County Judge Executive Dan Mosely stated, "It's time for us to wipe away our tears and look at ways to diversify. It should have been done 50 years ago. I'm glad it is happening now."