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ARC changing its direction, focus

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

About two inches thick and backed by $40,000 in Appalachian Regional Commission funding, Doddridge County's new strategic-growth plan is hard to miss.

It sits in the middle of a courthouse table, surrounded by three county commissioners who hope it and the construction of a regional jail will light a development fire in this rural community of about 7,000.

The problem?

"We need capital," said Ora Ash, one of the commissioners. "We need money to get the projects in here."

Commissioners said the county is also lacking in the kind of staffing needed to get the big grants. The Economic Development Authority and Chamber of Commerce are run by volunteers. And, although the plan is a required step in pursuing government funding, elected officials, mostly part-time, have little to no experience in such activity.

For today, the job of pursuing plan goals -- investing in infrastructure, strengthening the development organization, building on existing assets and marketing the county to high-potential industries -- seems equally as broad as the plan's ring-bound spine.

"I think the hope died before and we can't let that happen again," Ash continued. "But, who's going to do this?"

Ironically, for a number of similar communities throughout Appalachia, the ARC may be who, according to one commission expert.

New role, new challenges

"One of the major differences between your most seriously distressed communities and more successful ones is the local capacity for decision making, the local capacity for strategic planning," said Ron Eller, a University of Kentucky professor who is receiving ARC grant funding to write a commission history.

"The most seriously distressed communities lack the depth of that kind of technical assistance that more successful communities, especially urban communities, will have."

According to Eller, that disparity of experience will become more of an issue as the ARC continues to shift its non-highway spending from the "growth centers" it has pursued for most of its 35 years to the neediest pockets of its 13-state region.

Helping these poor counties, especially those that qualify as distressed, will be among the topics discussed at an Oct. 18 meeting of the ARC governors and co-chairs in Shepherdstown.

"One of the major things on the agenda for that day is approval of a distressed county strategy," Eller said. "A major element of that is to specifically discuss technical assistance."

That assistance may include interventions to follow up seed money such as that used in developing a growth plan for Doddridge County, which is not distressed, but transitional, the next step up. Eller said the interventions could include consultant teams that would make site visits or a region-wide team that would link county officials to local experts that can guide them through the maze of bureaucratic agencies that supply funding.

"It's one thing to do a strategic-growth plan," Eller said. "It's another thing to implement that plan."

While dealing with such rural needs is fairly new to the ARC, Eller said targeting the region's poorest counties is actually a return to the commission's initial objective. The commission was established by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, as part of his War on Poverty.

The ARC was originally intended to comprehensively address highways, infrastructure, education, health and economic development, but several of the human and social components were soon transferred to the short-lived Office of Economic Opportunity, Eller said. The ARC developed an economic growth-center strategy, as a result.

"Early resources went to those communities ... that had the greatest economic potential already -- at the expense of those more seriously distressed, rural communities," Eller said.

However, ARC co-chair Jesse White, Jr. said those early efforts were not wasted.

"The commission was founded on the idea of a growth-centered model," said White, a Democrat who was appointed by President Bill Clinton. "For the first 20 to 25 years you saw major investments in areas like Chattanooga (Tenn.), Pittsburgh and Greenville/Spartanburg (S.C.)."

Not all the targeted communities were urban. Two West Virginia counties, Jefferson and Putnam, have received significant funding. They are now the only two of the state's 55 counties that are classified as competitive, just below the ARC's top ranking of attainment.

Harrison County has also fared well, White added. The seed money that helped get Benedum Airport off the ground is touted throughout the region as an example of ARC dollars doing exactly what is intended.

White said the ARC has committed at least 30 percent of non-highway funding to distressed counties in the future.

"It's kind of gone from what I would call a growth-center model to an intensive-care type of model," he added. "Local officials in the distressed counties ought to get active and get in the game."

A West Virginia experiment

Gov. Cecil Underwood, a Republican who is co-chair of the commission along with White, agrees things are coming full circle.

"There are these lingering pockets of unimproved areas," said Underwood, who was instrumental in the formation of the ARC during his first term in the late 1950s. "People keep asking on Capitol Hill, 'When are you ever going to get the problem solved?' "

Underwood believes the move toward "cleaning up" these distressed pockets will eventually complete ARC's mission and bring its closure.

He agreed with Eller that new issues have arisen because of the shift. In West Virginia, he is experimenting with a pilot program in McDowell County, in the southernmost part of the state to address some of these.

"The state had $90 million in that county," Underwood said of past funding. "I really couldn't see much evidence of that kind of investment."

Since 1998, Underwood has been directing a significant amount of West Virginia's ARC funding to McDowell to develop economic development strategies he hopes will be replicated throughout the state's distressed counties. Among the investments are the construction of highways, the pursuit of a federal prison contract and the development of a micro-loan program ($5,000-$10,000) to help local businesses expand.

"It's seed money to draw entrepreneurs," Underwood said. "We're looking for a model."

An uncertain future

Plans and philosophy changes aside, many players involved agree the possibility of a George W. Bush presidency means uncertainty for the ARC. Under Ronald Reagan's administration, the commission was nearly disbanded and, although it survived, its funding was severely cut until Clinton came into office.

White and Underwood are convinced the bipartisan support has deepened since near closure. Eller is more skeptical.

Regarded favorably by Republican governors who are on the ARC board, the commission has generally not been looked upon lovingly by Republican administrations, Eller said. He wonders how the philosophy switch would be viewed by a Bush administration.

"It's a very difficult time for the commission to be going through this process."

Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1403 or by e-mail at nedinger@exponent-telegram.com.

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