With NYTimes writer present, local biz owners tell of community involvement

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Throughout the Appalachian region, local citizens and businesses work to make their own differences in the community.

Several Athens entrepreneurs were lauded at a local panel Sept. 27 moderated by David Brooks, a New York Times columnist and regular contributor to PBS NewsHour and NBC’s Meet The Press. The session was the eighth in the series titled “America’s Rural Opportunity,” run by Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group, and it was the first to be held outside of Washington, D.C.

“The election brought new urgency to addressing rural economies. We need to understand what’s working and why by highlighting models of excellence like Athens,” said John Molinaro, the president of Appalachian Partnership, which co-sponsored the event.

The panel included Leslie Schaller, an owner of Casa Nueva and director of programs at the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks; Art Oestrike, the owner of Bagel Street Deli and Jackie O’s Public House and Brewpub; and Sean Terrell, Hocking College’s dean of workforce development and community engagement.

So, what is the key to a thriving rural economy?

According to all three panelists, it’s working in tandem with other local businesses.

“You can’t do this alone,” Oestrike said. “Whether it’s buying from local bakers who make their own bread or buying meat that’s locally sourced, it’s really important to keep money in the area. It helps you, and it helps your neighbors.”

Oestrike attested to that sentiment through experience: when a fire ravaged several buildings on West Union Street in 2014 and Jackie O’s lost their main production kitchen, Schaller’s organization — ACEnet — lent a helping hand. Jackie O’s worked out of ACEnet facilities for 18 months until their kitchen was up and running again.

“There’s a sense of connection and care and compassion in small communities you don’t get with big chains,” Schaller said. “We buy the softball jerseys, we hang artwork from local artists in our places. There’s a really sense of community.”

Brooks, the New York Times columnist, said he was impressed with the community Athens residents built around food.

“I live five blocks from the Capitol Building,” Brooks said. “And I still believe the most important things happening in the country are happening in places like this.”

While the agriculture industry is taking the brute of legislation and tariffs under current administration, Schaller said it is important to shop local and participate in the 30-mile meal concept.

“Community building is part of our soul,” Schaller said. “We — in rural communities — need to be heard. There are a lot of untold stories and unsung heroes.”