By JOHN PATRICK GATTA| METRO MONTHLY STAFF WRITER
Soon the Mahoning Valley will undergo its own transformation when it becomes an extension of Appalachia. No, the area hasn’t been surveyed and viewed as part of a mountain range. Rather, legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives, Appalachian Regional Development Act Amendments of 2007, H.R. 799, passed in June and is awaiting consideration by the Senate. It would add Mahoning, Trumbull and Ashtabula counties to the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), joining Ohio’s 29 other counties. In all, the bill adds 13 new counties in four states to the ARC.
Pushed for several years by U.S. Representatives Tim Ryan (D-Niles) and Steven LaTourette (R-Concord Township), the designation would bring in federal dollars toward infrastructure and economic development.
“While there is no definitive timetable, we are hopeful that this will be resolved soon, and I will be urging Senators for their favorable consideration,” said Ryan, when questioned about when the Senate will take up the bill.
As for his desire to have Trumbull and Mahoning counties become part of the ARC, Ryan said, “It is a designation that makes us eligible for certain federal grants out of the Appalachian Regional Commission’s Area Development Program and Highway Program.
“Our region is facing some significant challenges when it comes to critical infrastructure like water lines, sewers and roads. Some of the grants that are given through the ARC target those specifically, but that’s only part of what could be. The ARC is responsible for trying to increase the quality of life, income and global competitiveness for the entire region and there is the potential for real change here.”
For the purposes of the ARC, the Appalachian Region is defined as a 200,000 square mile area that follows the Appalachian Mountains. Running from southern New York to northern Mississippi, it encompasses all of West Virginia and parts of 12 other states. Nearly 23 million people live in the 410 counties that encompass that region and 42 percent is rural.
A scientific description of the Appalachian Mountains extends its range through the New England states and the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Quebec. Significant ranges include the Cumberland Mountains in Tennessee, the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, the Alleghenies in Pennsylvania, the Catskills in New York, the Green Mountains in Vermont and the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Despite such far-flung geography, what the Ohio counties do have in common with other ARC counties is economic stagnation and a need for redevelopment dollars. The ARC was created in 1965 to help the one in three Appalachians who lived in poverty. At that time, Appalachia’s economy depended heavily on coal mining and manufacturing.
“We qualified because of our high level of poverty,” said Tom Finnerty, associate director of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies, “not because we’re at the Appalachian region by any means. But we qualify, statistically, because we’re adjacent to the Appalachian region and we have enough people below the poverty level. So what we’re looking for is, basically, economic development funds.”
Although the poverty rate in the Appalachian region was cut in half by 1990, not everyone benefited from the Commission’s funds. Some areas are still unable to make the switch from manufacturing, which has been damaged by an influx of cheaper imports, to high-wage, high-tech jobs that can be found through information services. Still, it is far from the worst-case scenarios that spurred the ARC’s inception – areas that needed such basic infrastructure improvements as water and sewer systems.
Closer to home and in a press release announcing the bill’s passage in the House, LaTourette mentioned specific areas that can receive federal help – road, sewer, education and workforce training, health care and community revitalization projects.
“The designation only means we are eligible for these funds,” added Ryan. “Our cities, townships and counties will still have to apply for the grants and have them approved. While there are many demands on ARC resources, this will provide us with an additional opportunity to qualify for the funds we need. I am confident that will happen. The state of Ohio has worked with the ARC for many years and has had a very positive relationship with them.”
Reid Dulberger, executive vice president of the Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber, viewed being part of the ARC as a much-needed financial benefit but he remained concerned with how large a slice of the funding pie the Mahoning Valley will end up receiving.
“It’s generally a plus. The trade-offs are money versus image. On the money side, there, at least in the short term, may not be much because of the way the Appalachian Regional Funds are divided. At least as I understand they’re divided. The core Appalachian counties get the lion’s share of the funding. So what was previously relatively small funding for the non-core counties will probably get even smaller in the short term. But it’s a seat at the table and there may be more money later on,” he said.
While the opportunity to receive additional federal funds is a reason to celebrate, the perception of Appalachia remains a picture of Americans living in such abject poverty that it brings about visions of the dirty, hungry orphans in Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist.”
“The concern has been that we would be perceived as a stereotypical Appalachian county out of the movies,” said Dulberger.
“Quite frankly, I’m not too concerned about that. People, who are looking at our community from the outside area, at least from a business perspective, are not going to be confused. First of all, they do their research. Secondly, they know that Northeast Ohio is not what you think of when you typically think of Appalachia. So, from my perspective, there’s really little or no image downside.”
To some degree, Finnerty supports that argument by pointing out that those with knowledge of the region and the ARC can distinguish between reality and perception. “I don’t know that it matters much in the twenty-first century because a lot of places in the Appalachian Region have . . . it’s worked out well for them.
“It’s working for Pittsburgh. It’s working in various places down south. I don’t think it has the stigma it used to have. But still, it, undoubtedly, will have some kind of a stigma for people that live here, more so than it would nationally.”
In countering Appalachia’s stereotypical image, Ryan cited the region’s success stories. “I don’t think that it’s fair to stigmatize the ARC. The world-renowned Chautauqua Institution in New York is in ARC territory, as is all of Erie County, Pa., and Allegheny County, which, of course, contains Pittsburgh.
“I would say that in all these instances you haven’t seen twenty-first century businesses shy away from these areas; there is no reason to believe they would do it in our case, either.”
Finnerty cited a real-life example of how inclusion in the ARC can bring valuable projects to a community. “It seems to have worked for Columbiana County as far as getting the Intermodal Industrial Park (IIP) in Wellsville – the combination, rail, barge and road.”
More than 100 jobs were created for the 70-acre riverside facility with 800 inland acres available for additional development. The park allows for the transfer of cargo between multiple modes of transportation.
In the end it’s the money that matters, especially if it’s used in projects that can reap lasting benefits.
“External funding is always a good thing,” Dulberger said. “We’re always looking for, I call it ‘OPM’ – ‘Other People’s Money’ – actually, state and federal dollars in lieu of local money. Whatever we can bring to the community through membership in the Appalachian Regional Commission lowers the burden on local tax revenue, which already is stressed to the breaking point. From my standpoint, it does seem to be a positive.”
“It’s another tool,” said Finnerty. “It gives more resources, and depending on what the business is, it gives them a lot of help. It’s something that will be a draw in that respect. There’s tax breaks. There’s money. There’s all kinds of things.