5 takeaways from the Appalachian State of the Region conference

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There are many economic challenges facing Southeast Ohio, but there are also many groups working to solve these problems to better the lives of area residents.

That was the main theme of the 8th Annual Appalachian Ohio State of the Region Conference, held May 21 at Ohio University. The Messenger is highlighting some main takeaways from the daylong event, with an emphasis on tangible ways these economic development leaders are affecting citizens’ lives.

#1 – There are many organizations working toward economic prosperity throughout Appalachia 

It might surprise some to know just how many nonprofits and organizations are working toward improving the economy in this region. Tuesday’s conference featured many such groups, with representatives detailing their focuses and in some cases zeroing in on specific projects.

One such program is Leveraging Innovation Gateways and Hubs Toward Sustainability (LIGHTS) is a program founded by Ohio University’s Innovation Center in 2016 that seeks innovative methods, such as 3D printing technology, to assist local businesses and economic growth.

“Some of the biggest takeaways that we’ve learned so far is that you don’t need to have a superman or superwoman locally, because you have a network of super people,” said LIGHTS Executive Director Jen Simon.

The Shawnee State University Kricker Innovation Hub is a new program with a similar mission — to connect the university with downtown Portsmouth.

Another agency, Buckeye Hills Regional Council, is housed in Marietta. It is a regional government council which includes elected officials from eight different counties. One of the council’s services includes community development, which involves securing funding for educational improvements, job training and maintaining transportation infrastructure.

Other groups present at the conference include Ohio Rural Development Alliance and Ohio Mid-Eastern Governments Association.

#2 — Athens-area groups are leading the way

Several locally based groups presented at this year’s conference, many of which are collaborating with other Appalachian organizations on projects.

Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs has several entrepreneurial and regional development programs dedicated to strengthening the community. The school’s Small Business Development Center provides consulting services for new and current small business owners, including help with market research and business planning.

The BOBCAT Network is also funded by Ohio University, and is a development project that assists most of the Ohio Valley Regional Development Commission region (OVRDC). The group is currently working on a project in Adams County, where two coal-powered facilities recently closed resulting in a loss of around 1,100 jobs. The network is seeking to place an economic recovery coordinator in this county, among other services.

Jason Jolley, associate professor of rural economic development and BOBCAT Network project lead, said that the groups mission extends beyond Adams County — the group seeks to help all counties in the OVRDC range. (Athens County is not in the region served by the organization.)

“A large chunk of what we’re going to do is help those communities prepare their investment pitches, help them identify their best assets and what they should be looking for as they market their opportunity zones,” Jolley said.

The Foundation for Appalachian Ohio was also represented at the conference, an entity based in Nelsonville. Among the services provided is a collection of nearly 300 scholarships to sustain higher education goals for the region’s students.

#3 — Broadband access remains a top priority

Lack of broadband access continues to be an issue that impacts many areas in rural Ohio counties.

ConnectOhio is one group providing widespread access throughout the whole state. Chip Spann is the director of engineering and technical services for ConnectOhio and he pointed out Tuesday that broadband access is more than just browsing the internet. In counties without reliable access, he said, law enforcement agencies have difficulty using the equipment in their squad cars or receiving emergency calls. Students in local schools have trouble completing assignments at home, either using personal devices or school-issued laptops.

Many small communities have encountered problems when trying to install new broadband connectivity. According to Mark DeFalco of the Appalachian Regional Commission, several broadband providers do not want to offer services to areas with low populations due to economical reasons — a small customer base usually results in a low return rate on expensive installment and service costs.

Organizations like ConnectOhio and Horizon have also encountered financial issues in completing broadband access projects. Fiber lines, according to DeFalco, typically cost around $50,000 per mile. These problems have caused some broadband routes to be suspended in recent months, including routes to Columbus, Cincinnati, and throughout several different Appalachian counties.

To respond to these problems, the Appalachian Regional Commission has increased its focus on providing subsidies to broadband companies and also to applying for available grants. Many organizations, including ConnectOhio, are also attempting to pool resources with local communities and broadband providers to share things like joint trenches and power lines.

While increasing broadband access continues to yield plenty of expensive challenges, Chris Cooper of the Athens business Intelliwave and other regional leaders say the ultimate goal is to assist underserved markets and help connect the entire region together.

#4 — A single project can have a wider, lasting impact 

It might seem like just a nature project, but the effort to develop the Baileys Mountain Bike Trail System at Wayne National Forest might pay huge economic dividends in the future.

That’s the view of some officials, who say the trail system could lead to a significant uptick in tourism and the subsequent local spending that comes with it.

Since 2016, Wayne National Forest officials worked with Athens Bicycle Club and other city and county elected officials to develop the 88-mile trail system.

Athens City Councilman Peter Kotses called the national forest a “regional asset.” He is also owner of the Athens Bicycle shop in town.

“This project has been so rewarding because I’ve connected locally and at the national level with people who believe in the same kind of thing I believe in,” he said.

Kotses predicted the trail would attract outdoor enthusiasts from a variety of backgrounds, and will bring revenue for local business and introduce travelers to the area.

“We believe in the first five years after build out we should see around 180,000 visitors to the area,” he said.

#5 — Training students early can strengthen local workforces

In many counties throughout Appalachia, there is an increased effort to strengthen local job markets by offering development opportunities to students in local high schools and community colleges.

Two representatives of Appalachian career training programs shared their experiences at State of the Region. Julie Needs of the Sustainable Opportunity Development Center in Columbiana County shared how her organization provides courses, workshops, and readiness programs — particularly in manufacturing and health services. The Center has even installed a career counselor within a high school in Columbiana County.

Tasha Weary of the organization Building Bridges to Careers in Washington County is also focused on youth services, and has connected local students with small businesses to help them develop entrepreneurial skills.

These two programs are similar to Project RISE, a program based in Athens County that provides students in nine school districts with access to job training, apprenticeships and internships through around 80 local businesses.

Both Needs and Weary pointed out that youth training programs not only help students begin their own careers, but also help the entire community by assisting employers and effectively training new employees. As these programs continue to evolve, the two emphasized the importance of keeping an eye out for new opportunities to develop relationships with regional partners, local businesses, and regional universities in order to grow local job opportunities even more.