Local leadership keys success says ARC co-chair

By Thomas Wilson

   KINGSPORT -- The federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission says she's observed the quality of local leadership as the greatest impetus of an Appalachian community's success.
   "The difference in my opinion is local leadership," said Anne B. Pope, federal co-chair of ARC. "Which community has the local leadership to define the community and move it forward."
   A Kingsport native, Pope is the top federal advocate of ARC, which serves as a funding and development arm for 410 counties in 13 states identified as part of the Appalachian region covering approximately 23 million people. The Commission also oversees work on the 3,090-mile Appalachian Development Highway System (ADHS), designed to connect the Region to the nation's transportation grid.
   Pope and ARC officials heard from East Tennessee area leaders at the fourth strategic planning field forum here at the MeadowView Convention and Conference Center on Thursday. Forum participants heard presentations on issues and challenges the region will face over the next five years. Topics covered included population trends, infrastructure, health and education, and the "new" economy.
   In December 2003, ARC launched a strategic planning process to help guide economic and community development work in the Appalachian region over the next five years. Earlier forums were held in Dalton, Ga., Ashland, Ky., and State College, Penn.
   ARC receives annual appropriations from Congress. Funding is divided between highway funding and nonhighway funding. Under the fiscal year 2005 budget submitted by President Bush in February, funding for the ADHS was recommended at $450 million for FY 2005, and nonhighway funding at $66 million.
   "That (the ADHS) continues to be the lynch pin of our economic development plan," said Pope.
   The Interstate 26 corridor ranks as a gold star of development facilitated by ARC. The interstate ranks as the only highway system in the nation constructed to facilitate economic development.
   Economic pundits frequently refer to the "new" economy as the exporting of thousands of manufacturing jobs overseas -- and unemployed workers by the thousands across Appalachia. ARC officials estimated nearly 175,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost in the region since 2000.
   Pope said a diversified regional economy, particularly in the service sector, was gaining momentum for the region. She said when ARC was established, roughly 200 counties were identified as being "distressed" according to factors ranking poverty, unemployment, and per capita income.
   "Today there are 91 economically distressed counties," she said. "That is still not good, but we are making tremendous progress."
   An economic analysis provided by Regional Economic Models, Inc. of Massachusetts indicated a decline in manufacturing jobs relating to metal, masonry and stone products from 2004 to 2008 in the Appalachian region. Under non-durable goods, apparel, paper, and textile manufacturing were project to see continued losses in employment over the next four years.
   On the positive tip, the analysis found durable goods production of technical instruments, machinery and computers were poised to create thousands of new jobs in Appalachia through 2008. The analysis did report major gains in the medical, education and business service sectors.
   A veteran of government service, Pope served as commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance until President Bush nominated her as the 10th federal co-chair of ARC in September of 2002. A native of Kingsport, Pope has served on several public and private boards around the Tri-Cities.
   One example of a community cooperation was evident in development of "The Crooked Road," Virginia's heritage music trail that sets landmarks of country, bluegrass and mountain music in the commonwealth. The project that includes the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, Va. and Ralph Stanley Museum in Clintwood, Va. sprang from a grassroots effort by many communities.
   Termed "the art of the possible" by Bill Shelton, director of Housing and Community Development for the commonwealth, Southwest Virginia communities are pushing to market "The Crooked Road" across the nation.
   "It has been very exciting to watch," said Shelton, who attended the forum on behalf of Virginia Governor Mark Warner.
   Projects funded by ARC are frequently facilitated through the 72 development districts. A local government or agency must apply for each project individually. Susan Reid, executive director of the First Tennessee Development District (FTDD) in Johnson City, said ARC had assisted in numerous projects in Northeast Tennessee including telecommunication service in Johnson County.
   "Large projects will pull together funding from several different agencies," said Reid. "ARC can make the critical difference."
   One large project involving the FTDD was Carter County's Watauga Regional River Water Authority (WRRWA). The WRRWA was created to develop a water intake site at the Watauga River and a future water source for the entire county. Reid said her agency was also working with county officials to establish a water supply source in the Fish Springs community near Butler.
   "We see water and sewer requests all the time," said Reid.
   ARC invested more than $150 million in water and sewer infrastructure improvements during the 2003 fiscal year. In a 1999 study conducted by the University of North Carolina Environmental Financing Center, Tennessee had roughly $350 million in preliminary capital needs to provide drinking water for residents.
   Congress established the Appalachian Regional Commission in 1965 to support economic and social development in the Appalachian Region.
   Since ARC's creation, Pope said tangible improvement was evident across Appalachia. The region's infant mortality rate has dropped by two-thirds while far more residents have high school and college degrees than 40 years ago. Still, she acknowledged the ARC had plenty of work to do in the future.
   "It has made tremendous strides," said Pope, "but we have a ways to go."