Reshaping Appalachia’s Coal-Centric Economy with Bottom Up Solutions — Episode 138 of Building Local Power

Date: 28 Oct 2021 | posted in: Building Local Power | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

In this episode of Building Local Power, host Jess Del Fiacco and Director of ILSR’s Community Composting initiative Brenda Platt are joined by Jacob Hannah, Conservation Director at Coalfield Development. Coalfield Development works across many sectors — solar energy, agriculture, manufacturing, deconstruction, reuse, and more — as it pursues its mission of rebuilding the Appalachian economy.

Highlights of their discussion include:

  • The requirements of a just economic transition for the region.
  • Coalfield Development’s impact on the region — hundreds of new jobs, dozens of new businesses — and the diverse economic enterprises they are supporting.
  • The important role of partnerships and community engagement in their work.
  • Why replacing the coal-centric economy with diverse, community-led solutions is key to sustainable success in the region.

“A lot of times there’s a false narrative that for a just transition, everything that was a brown economy has to be replaced by a green energy economy. And that’s not always the case. There’s never going to be one silver bullet that replaces all of what coal used to be. And so that’s what we’re trying to make sure that we iterate in the diversity of our options right now, whether it’s agriculture, woodworking, entrepreneurship, solar, manufacturing, we want to have a large toolbox of opportunities for folks in the region. And so that just transition for us looks very different from, let’s say, the European model where it’s a very top-down approach, where the government owns the coal mine and say, phases it out.”

 

Jess Del Fiacco: Hello, and welcome to Building Local Power, a podcast dedicated to thought provoking conversations about how we can challenge corporate monopolies and expand the power of people to shape their own future. I’m Jess Del Fiacco, the host of Building Local Power and communications manager here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. For more than 45 years, ILSR has worked to build thriving, equitable communities where power, wealth, and accountability remain in local hands. Today, I’m joined by my colleague, Brenda Platt who directs ILSR’s Community Composting Initiative. And we’re going to be talking about zero waste moving away from a coal focused economy and local economic development with Jacob Hannah. Who’s the conservation director at Coalfield Development, organization that is rebuilding the Appalachian economy from the ground up. So welcome to the show, Jacob and Brenda.
Brenda Platt: Hello.
Jacob Hannah: Thanks for having me.
Jess Del Fiacco: And I think to get us started, Jacob, could you just give us a very brief overview of what Coalfield Development is and what’s the meaning behind the name?
Jacob Hannah: Sure. So Coalfield Development is a nonprofit organization here in West Virginia. We cover about five counties and the name is a clue to not only the region, but the focus this region has historically been very, not only dependent, but productive for coal generation and coal consumption. So essentially it was a mono economy built around serving that one industry. So all the towns were built around the coal mines, all the roads and trains and infrastructure built to serve this economy. And so now that that industry has gone into decline. We have this massive power vacuum in it’s place. And so how do we address that in a way that is a just transition to new and diverse economies that doesn’t leave people behind like what we’re seeing right now with the opioid epidemic, massive rates of unemployment, lots of folks leaving the state and lots of health issues as well.
Jacob Hannah: So how can we tackle those factors by offering folks some re-skilling opportunities, new economic employment opportunities, training, education, and also of course, diversified portfolio of different opportunities for folks to choose from. We are a nonprofit, but we house the largest solar installer in the state right now, there are big corporates which is a really sort of a newer model to the region. We do large scale rural and urban agriculture, and we would do a lot of recycling and upcycling, building deconstruction and remodeling and a whole plethora of other activities as well. And of course we want to try and figure out how to integrate that with actual mine land remediation as well.
Jacob Hannah: So again, we realized quickly that we can’t just tackle one element of this issue with just re-skilling someone and giving them a job. There’s a whole litany of components that we want to try and help support. And that’s where the training comes in, where the workforce development comes in. And we even offer a lot of life skills as financial literacy, interpersonal communications, et cetera. So it’s really a holistic approach to figuring out how we can rebuild communities that help rebuild people that help rebuild new economic opportunities. So people, planet and profits all mixed together.
Brenda Platt: Awesome. We’re going to talk a lot more about Coalfield Development and what the organization is doing, but Jacob, I want to ask you about your own personal arc. Now you grew up in Appalachia, right?
Jacob Hannah: I did, yes.
Brenda Platt: How did you get into this field?
Jacob Hannah: Well, my dad was a coal miner and his dad worked in the coal mines as well. And I was born and raised in a coal town. They call it the Billion Dollar Coal Fields in Williamson, West Virginia. And so coal is very much a part of the culture and the economy. It’s what puts bread on the table for a lot of folks, including my family at one point in time. But then the coal mines shut down and we had a lot of issues with water in our region getting clean water and then forest fires happened as well. So it’s sort of a one, two, three knockout punch for a lot of folks in our region. And so we had to leave the area like a lot of people did and it sort of feels like almost a sense of betrayal in a way, because it’s like you’re leaving with a bucket of water hypothetically, and you know your neighbor’s house is on fire and you can’t really help put out their fire because you’re trying to go help put out your own.
Jacob Hannah: And so I’ve always wanted to come back and try and figure out how I can help make life less painful and just more opportunistic and thriving and resilient in Appalachia. And so pursued a couple of different education opportunities as the first in my family to go to college and got my degree in business because I thought, “Okay, if there’s a lack of jobs, maybe I need to study business,” but a lot of people have tried that in the region and a lot of businesses have sprung up and failed. And so I got an opportunity to study sustainability management as well.
Jacob Hannah: And so looking at how business doesn’t have to be just for profit with one bottom line, but can focus on people, planet and profit, all integrated in together. And that in and of itself helps businesses thrive and survive, and also helps give back to the communities and the economy and more than just one way. So now I’m back here in my home region and we’re doing a lot of fun and exciting things that I never thought would be possible in a place that usually is on the bottom list of every indicator of quality of life. So we’re really excited to be part of the alternative narrative for how Appalachia can look in the 21st century.
Brenda Platt: Yeah. And you talked about the just transition, is there more to say about the just transition for Appalachia.
Jacob Hannah: Sure. So a just transition is a term that’s floating around a lot right now, and different regions have different ways of defining it, but ultimately it’s an understanding that for us, our definition is the first fruits of a new economy should foremost benefit and prop up the people left behind by the last economy. So if there is a coal region that’s based out in coal, those coal miners and those coal families have done their due diligence and provided the energy that was needed to build our skyscrapers and powers through the world wars. Then we need to honor that legacy and help those folks have a stable transition into a new occupation before we start bringing in outside skill, labor, or new jobs for other folks who are looking for those opportunities. So that’s where a lot of the re-skilling focuses on. So retraining those folks who may have been truck drivers for coal, and now they’re moving materials that can be upcycled and recycled or folks who are mechanics operators. They’re now operating some of our machinery for processing.
Jacob Hannah: So really trying to figure out what fits where with whom. And I think a lot of times there’s a false narrative that for a just transition, everything that was a brown economy has to be replaced by a green energy economy. And that’s not always the case. That’s never going to be one silver bullet that replaces all of what coal used to be. And so that’s what we’re trying to make sure that we iterate in the diversity of our options right now, whether it’s agriculture, woodworking, entrepreneurship, solar, manufacturing, we want to have a large toolbox of opportunities for folks in the region. And so that a just transition for us, looks very different from let’s say the European model where it’s a very top-down approach where the government owns the coal mine and say, phase it out. And then it phases out the infrastructure, for instance, if nothing else.
Jacob Hannah: And then by the time it gets to the people at the bottom, it’s been five, 10 years of processing and they’ve sort of been moved out. They’ve sort of been displaced by all the change that’s already happened. And so we flipped that model. We start with the people at the bottom first that helped bring about the change and the models and the drivers that result to that ultimate transition for the region. And so that really creates a holistic, healthy community of practice and also brings in a lot of buy-in from the local workforce as well, to where they don’t feel displaced too. So that is in our definition a just transition.
Brenda Platt: Yeah. And what you’re doing along those lines as your incubating these social enterprises and you’re doing this hiring unemployed people, doing the on the job workforce development training, tell us about that workforce development and how you’re incubating those social enterprises from the bottom up.
Jacob Hannah: Sure thing, right now our workforce development model looks like three different components. So let’s say this is a one work week that you’re looking at for a typical trainee within our organization, 33 hours at that week, they are on the job learning a trade and getting paid for that trade at a living wage. So whether they’re coming in from an opioid recovery program or incarceration, or just facing different barriers to employment, where you want to take in the folks who are having a hard time getting a leg up in Appalachia. And so 33 hours a week, you’re doing that. You’re learning your trade and getting paid to learn it. And that could be doing woodworking, that could be doing remodeling, solar installation, agriculture, whatever it may be. That’s what your model looks like there. So 33 hours doing that six hours a week, they are in the classroom pursuing a higher education degree with our financial assistance.
Jacob Hannah: And so that could be anything of their choosing for about two and a half years that were in their associate’s degree. And then three hours a week, they are learning life skills, financial literacy, communication, how to open a bank account, how to apply for food stamp assistance, whatever it may be. We want to try and help solve those little challenges that just pop up everyday in life that could prohibit someone from being able to choose. “Do I stay home and take care of my sick kid, or do I go to work and try and get a paycheck to support them down the road?” That’s a tough decision parents should have to make, so we want to try and help arm our folks with those resources and skillsets to be able to tackle these challenges. So that’s what that full workforce model looks like.
Jacob Hannah: And then of course, we work very closely with communities and organizations, businesses, and nonprofits to host these region wide communications on what does your community need? What is it lacking and how can we help provide a social enterprise to satisfy those needs? And so it would look different anywhere that you go. If you go down into Mingo County, West Virginia, the growing economy there is tourism. And so maybe we can help provide some of the gaps there between folks coming in who want a place to stay. And folks who want to expand that economies, maybe we can be the middleman that helps build some infrastructure to capture those dollars coming in and re-skill some folks in tourism or maybe it looks like agriculture on a former strip mine. There’s a lot that we do there with repurposing former moonscape strip mines into orchards and rotational grazing opportunities that help refertilize that soil, and then have a crop growing on top of it or a livestock growing on top of that goes into the local markets.
Jacob Hannah: So really it’s just a matter of listening to the community on what they want, what they need, and then trying to figure out how we fit into that picture as well. So the necessary cartilage between the funding sources and the folks who really need those leavers on the ground to be activated.
Brenda Platt: Yeah, there was one of the stories I think I heard you share about revitalizing a dilapidated property. I don’t know it’s the same area we were just talking about, but into a coffee house with the local development authority in there, and that apartments on top, that just seems like a perfect example of what you’re talking about to meet some communities need.
Jacob Hannah: Absolutely. We try and do it for a blend. Because again, it goes back to that one bullet, isn’t going to be the perfect shot to get us through. It’s going to be a mix. And so usually if we do take on a dilapidated property, like down at maintained one or [Wayne 00:11:34] that you’re talking about right now, it would usually be commercial on the bottom floor where there’s a lot of foot traffic, it would be residential above and then maybe some sort of mix in the back of the building. So the commercial for that example was coffee shop in the bottom apartments on the top and then economic development office in the back as well.
Jacob Hannah: And so that looks similar as a model that could be replicated in these smaller cold communities that need to sort of a simple incubation satellite station, maybe not the full nine yards of a multimillion dollar investment yet because it’s might be a smaller community at three or four or 500 people, but maybe it’s just something small enough to start off first to get some ideas started to growing. And so obviously all those things connect back to our main hubs here in Huntington, West Virginia, where we have a large factory that was scheduled to be demolished. And now it houses a lot of businesses and new ideas and incubation centers and black box theaters. It has the largest non-profit solar installation on the top of the roof as well. So that’s a great sort of living, learning lab of how ideas can thrive in that area where folks can get inspiration and learn about the funding that’s available.
Brenda Platt: I love the idea that Coalfield’s working on that. You’re not replacing the monopoly coal economy with a monopoly other economy, it’s this distributed democratizing the business sector. And you’ve incubated 40 new businesses. Can you talk about some of those that distributed diverse because now you’re helping to build and demonstrate the potential for?
Jacob Hannah: Yeah. I mean, it looks very similar to what I was describing before where maybe it’s not, we build a new business in every community, but maybe someone in the community already has an idea and it’s struggling to thrive because it’s only able to reach a certain population and maybe we can reach some of those outside dollars from outside of Appalachia, because a lot of times businesses within Appalachia, they’re only able to access the dollars that are inside Appalachia and that’s never going to lead to large growth. It’s never going to lead to self sustainability because folks in Appalachia may not have the buying power to support something like a local bakery or a local shop that’s that works on woodworking. So how do we use our network of partnerships, our broadcasting mechanisms, our ways to reach outside into other regions, to show the storytelling of folks who are reskilled and repurposing opportunities and materials to build new valuable scarce items.
Jacob Hannah: Like some of the woodworking that we’re doing, is wood that is inside of buildings that is no longer in the market anymore, like Wormy Chestnut. And so that’s very valuable when it would normally be in a landfill and says being upcycling into nice, distressed looking wood, that a lot of hipster bars in New York love to buy and integrate into their buildings. And so how do we connect them to those buying power dollars outside of the region? And so those are the businesses that we want to support. And then oftentimes we develop our own businesses. We incubate new ones. One of them is a partnership to focus on how do we repurpose an abandoned strip mine and also satisfy the need of the lack of fresh fish in the region?
Jacob Hannah: And so we’re a landlocked state. A lot of our rivers are really heavily polluted and we’re trying to clean this up, but in the meantime, can we have a place to get fresh fish? And so we remediated abandoned strip mine, this called the Blue Acre Aquaponics facility. And we built an actual facility on top of it that incubates actual fish within the water and those fish when they deprecated, it feeds the lettuce growing on top of the water. And that lettuce filters out the water as well at the same time. So it’s a symbiotic relationship there. And so now all the stores and the restaurants here are able to have access to very fresh, close, local food systems and folks that are able to have jobs that aren’t going to go anywhere anytime soon as well. And that’s a former abandoned mine land that was normally a liability to the community and now is an asset again. So those are just some examples of how those stories work out.
Brenda Platt: Yeah. One of the other things that I love is that for some of the businesses you’ve incubated, this idea of one person’s waste is another person’s treasure. And one of the businesses is T-shirt making and some of the textile waste is going to a mushroom grower. Did I get that?
Jacob Hannah: Yeah. So the idea is, I mean, it started with what I was mentioning before. There’s a lot of dilapidation in Appalachia. You have a lot of buildings that are falling down. And so what we do is upcycle those buildings, if it’s too far gone, we upcycle the wood. And so we’ve been trying to apply that same line of thinking is if we can upcycle wood, what else can we up cycle? What else can we see that would normally be categorized as trash or waste or useless and find the value in it in a way maybe we don’t have a way to extract it, but maybe another partner’s looking for it or maybe another organization has an idea for it. And so there are mushroom farmers at Wayne County that are using shredded textiles as the necessary fibers for mushroom farming, or these textiles couldn’t be sold anywhere because they’re too far degraded that so they can use those fibers.
Jacob Hannah: There’s another opportunity that we use as well that shreds plastic bottles and plastics, and puts them through a four-step process to where they become very smooth textiles. Like the one I’m wearing right now, T-shirt textiles. So that’s what’s within our building right now in Huntington. Similarly there’s organizations with our partnerships in Ohio and Kentucky that are looking for plastics that they melt down and put into 3D printers. And they’re making pottery plants out of plastics and making cup holders and placers, even the bands that go across for face masks for COVID. And so it’s amazing, just the ingenuity that’s in the region that is hungry for the opportunity to unleash their ideas and their creativity towards making entirely new business models that didn’t exist before in the area. And these business models are tackling things that would normally be floating down the Ohio River, floating down some water area where there isn’t a cycling, there isn’t processing like where I grew up at if something was trash you had to take it in your backyard and burn it.
Jacob Hannah: And now first of all we’re able to divert that and empower those folks that you don’t have to pay to come to drop off these materials. You don’t have to sign up for a program where you’re a member, just come and bring it here. We’ll take it, we’ll drop it off. And we’ll take care of electronics. We’ll take your wooden pallets, whether your rubber tires, your plastics, whatever it may be your textiles. And we will contact our members who are in this region and see, “Oh, organization X is looking for this and organization Y is already got a truck in route to here. So let’s tie these things together. Let’s make it all work for each other to where it costs a lot less for you to run your business. It costs a lot less for you to recycle, and it cost a lot less for you to deliver something because there’s already logistics systems in place.”
Jacob Hannah: So how can we democratize the idea of recycling and upcycling in a region that has been completely divested in and forgotten about? And for just traditional recycling, there is no traditional recycling systems in our region. So how can we step up to the plate? And I’ll only attack that issue environmentally, but economically and socially as well, to where the Ohio River is the drinking water source for all of Huntington, West Virginia. That’s 55,000 people. So how can we keep it clean and also create value in a region that has limited economic opportunities? And so it really fits together all those pieces in a very harmonious way.
Brenda Platt: Yeah, that is local self-reliance in action.
Jess Del Fiacco: We’ll be right back after a really short break. Thanks for listening to our show. If you’re enjoying my conversation with Brenda and Jacob, I hope you’ll consider heading over to ilsr.org/donate to help support us. Your donation makes this podcast and all the work we do here at ILSR possible visit ilsr.org/donate to make a contribution today. Any amount is sincerely appreciated. And if you can’t donate right now, another way you can help us out is by leaving a rating or review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you happen to listen to our show, it really does make a difference. Thanks for listening. Now, back to the show.
Brenda Platt: Over the years, I’ve done a number of studies on the jobs by burning waste, land filling waste, and then comparing that to recycling and reuse. So for every 10,000 tons flowing into landfill, it’s one job. That same 10,000 tons going into a recycling sorting facility, just sorting the materials is 10 times more jobs, but when it’s repair and reuse, it’s like 200 times the number of jobs. So we’re talking about highly skilled labor. And everything that you’re really doing, and because I happen to work on and focus on composting, I have to ask you about composting.
Brenda Platt: And you talked about reclaiming mining land. And I understand that Marshall University, which is in West Virginia is probably the first commercial scale composting operation starting in the state and Coalfield might’ve had some role in that. And that’s the compost. I think the plan is to use it to reclaim some of this land that needs to be remediated. Can you just talk about what’s going on with the composting and before you start, I think there’s a connection to the wood waste that some of the wood waste is actually being composted with the food scraps from the university.
Jacob Hannah: Yeah. So even within our efforts to transform waste products like wood into value added products like furniture, they’re still byproducts of waste. So sawdust, sawdust is still by-product of that waste rescue process. And so how do we even look at that second level element of that rescue initiative and find the value in even sawdust? And so through what we’re calling the ReUse Corridor or this collection of organizations that are all communicating with each other.
Jacob Hannah: One of our partners is a Marshall University, Amy White is their sustainability director there she’s been fantastic to work with. And she was looking at, “Okay, we produce a massive amount of food waste on our campus, and we pay a third-party contractor to take all that food waste to a landfill. And it costs an incredible amount of money. And it just ends up in that net negative for the region because it’s just food waste and food waste is a massive contributor to pollution, to the water systems and just the quality of the environment there. So how can we divert that in a way that limits the cost for us as a university, but also creates a benefit or a product for the region?”
Jacob Hannah: And so our sawdust plus their food waste creates a really nice blend of a compost that is high grade quality and a verifiable to the region. And before we were ever even able to pursue that, we realized that there is state laws against selling large-scale compost in the State of West Virginia. And so that’s the beauty of these local level grassroots initiatives is that we’re able to test out these ideas that influence these larger systems, whether they be laws or infrastructure or bills or funding. And so this project was able to convince those legislators to rewrite that bill to where now it is legal to integrate those large scale composting facilities within the West Virginia system here.
Jacob Hannah: And so now this is the largest, this is the first commercial scale composting facility, and that compost is going to be bagged and sold to local consumers in the region. But as you mentioned before as well, we want to start integrating that into some of these moonscape properties of abandoned strip mines and bring back a top soil layer that is actually fertile again for these strip mines to where they can actually start to grow crops again, grow local flora again, and actually have something that can contribute back to the community as well. And we want to do it in a way that’s responsible too, because if you’re careful, it can just have runoff and create algae blooms in the local watershed. So we’re trying to be very patient into our homework on this and make it in a way that isn’t just rushing through something because it’s exciting, but do it in a way that has all of our homework done behind it.
Jacob Hannah: So that’s a really exciting opportunity for us to be able to make all those things work together. And we’re working through the Amur program and a couple other programs to try and replicate that model on a larger scale. And the beauty of that is ever since that installation at Marshall, we’ve probably got 15 or 16 other higher ed institutions reaching out to us about, “Hey, how did this start? How do I make this happen at my university, at my college?” Organizations way outside of West Virginia, all over the region, just curious about how this sprung up out of just a couple of people working together to make waste reduced and to increase economic opportunities and improve the environment. And also the folks who are going to be working in this composting facility are going to be re-skilled folks who are again facing barriers to employment. So you can’t really argue with that as a model. It’s something that anyone can get behind, no matter what their political leanings or their commercial backgrounds. It makes sense for everyone.
Jess Del Fiacco: I was going to say, I definitely want to talk more about the ReUse Corridor in a minute, but I want to make sure that we talk a little bit more about partnerships. What different kinds of partners do you have on different projects? How do those connections get established? And what does that unlock for communities?
Jacob Hannah: Yeah. Partnerships are the key to all of this honestly. Our organization Coalfield Development, we’re robust and we’re able to tackle a lot of issues, but there are just components of what is needed in the region that we simply do not have the facilities or infrastructure to tackle. And so something like the reuse port or something like the initiatives that you see now today are only because we’ve been able to have those communications and relationships with other first, it starts off pretty simple, nonprofit A is talking to nonprofit B it’s a very homogenous at first. Where you understand that you have similar viewpoints, similar missions to improve the region as a nonprofit. And then those operations start to benefit local businesses.
Jacob Hannah: And so local businesses start looking at, “Hey, okay, you’re hosting free collection events for cardboard crop-off. I’m the business for-profit that brings them a lot of cardboard because I ship in a lot of materials for my operations, and I pay way too much money to get this dumpster bin dropped off at my business to capture this material, and then it just goes to a landfill. I don’t want to do them, or I don’t want to pay the cost for that. And I don’t want to contribute to landfill. So how can I work with you nonprofit A and B to where I can just drop off my cardboard at your organization and benefit your operations with cardboard, and then benefit my operations from the reduction in the cost for recycling?”
Jacob Hannah: And so that starts to build and build and build to where you’ve got this network of organizations that understand, “Okay, this isn’t just a feel good kind of value system. This is something that makes sense for my bottom line. This is something that makes sense for the workforce. I’m needing more employees and I’m having trouble finding employees that are ready to enter the workforce. So this program sounds really exciting because it’s re-skilling people and it’s getting them ready for the workforce. I want to work with you guys.” And so that expands broader and broader to these economic development authorities and these local governments in these city councils. And then that expands even more to these larger institutions like universities and schools that have the controlled audiences and controlled elements to where they can participate on mass as well.
Jacob Hannah: And so it really builds and builds organically. At least what we’ve seen here in our operations. And those partnerships are crucial too, because you can show this has regional scale, and then that regional scale can help work together. Like what we’ve done here recently, and help joint applied for large funding initiatives. We were actually able just now to leverage a $2 million Appalachian Regional Commission grant for the ReUse Corridor, because we have been able to show that inter-state regional collaboration for this operation to really grow and thrive. So partnerships are absolutely crucial and key, but it can start very simply in a way that you would least expect it to take off, but don’t underestimate the person to person and business to business conversations that eventually manifest in something like this.
Brenda Platt: Yeah. Congratulations on that $2 million grant.
Jacob Hannah: Thank you.
Brenda Platt: And you’ve also got funding from the federal government, from the U.S. Department of Ag, is that right?
Jacob Hannah: Yeah, there’s a lot of innovative funding resources out there. I think that’s where the partnerships are great, but it’s really valuable to have a nonprofit to pursue those grant opportunities. And so USDA has rural focused recycling grant opportunities and in composting grant opportunities that we were able to leverage and pursue. As I mentioned before, the Appalachian Regional Commission, that’s a federal branch of the government that they provide a lot of funding for rural communities as well. But then also there’s just completely random funding opportunities like the world famous rock climber, Alex, Honnold he heard about what we’re doing with trying to help with a just transition, and wanted to provide funding to bring in solar in Appalachia that helps folks get re-skilled and learning about solar. And so that helped fund the largest non-profit solar installation in the state that we have right now. And so there’s a myriad of funding opportunities. It just takes really the dedicated group of people to sit down and identify what are we well-positioned to capitalize this and capture?
Brenda Platt: How about how much money would you like, what is needed? If you had a magic wand?
Jacob Hannah: Oh, goodness. Well, here’s one thing I like to point to actually, because I think a lot of folks there is a false dichotomy between seeing that, okay, Appalachia doesn’t have a lot of investment, so therefore they need a lot of investment, but I always like to point people back to the 1960s, when the war on poverty was declared in Appalachia. The war on poverty was declared in the poorest counties in America. And those counties are still the poorest counties today. And so that tells you that not only just investment fixes things, it’s not enough, very much so at least from a top-down approach. It’s not connected to the people at the grassroots level. And so we would love funding all day long for our operations, but I think it takes buy-in, it takes education and training and vision for folks to have an identity of, “Okay, this is what we want as a community,” and every community going to look different.
Jacob Hannah: And that in my opinion is much more valuable than a blank check because that’s sustainable, that’s cyclical, and it’s not going to phase out after two years when the grant runs out or funding runs out. So I think it takes a really good blend between that funding and the people on the ground level. Coalfield, we’ve been able to leverage just in the past 10 years about the almost $40 million that wouldn’t have been attracted to the region before. And we’ve been able to bring that in, and then that’s not including our partners in Ohio and Kentucky. And so we’re able to bring in those dollars, but those dollars are able to stay and generate more dollars because of the work we put in with the models and the partnerships and the operation. So I think if that trajectory continues, we’ll see a lot of resiliency in the area.
Brenda Platt: Yeah. I think the point is there’s tremendous untapped potential to grow this model. And so if you’re listening and you have money or connections, this is a group to support. Needs new investment, could be doing so much more than the 40 new businesses already created. Right?
Jacob Hannah: Absolutely.
Brenda Platt: One of the things I love about what you’re doing is you’re not just focusing on the bad or the negative of coal, which can be as we know, hyper politicized. But you’re really focusing on the good that most folks can rally behind. Who’s not for healthy soils or workforce training and new businesses and keeping things local and we vitalizing dilapidated properties, et cetera. But how with the hyper politicized nature of politics now, and particularly with the unique power that Senator Manchin has in your state, how do you navigate that? How are you navigating that?
Jacob Hannah: It’s tricky. Politics has had a very messy history in Appalachia and West Virginia in particular. Historically we were a blue state for a long time because this is where the unionization of labor began because of the poor treatment of coal miners from the coal companies, they were able to fight for their better rights, because a mule was more valued than a man at that time in the coal mines. And so through a lot of conflict and conversations and in years of fighting for better opportunities that develop this sense of a collectivism to where individuals were able to fight for their wellbeing. And that created, I think, a predominantly blue political climate for a long time. And then we started to see the downturn of the global economy.
Jacob Hannah: And so that was in part from the mechanization of labor, diversified energy, portfolio was starting to arise in the region. But then also there’s tighter legislation on the emissions of coal and trying to phase out coal. And so I think that started to pivot the politics in the region to where folks are trying to tightly hold on to coal because there’s nothing replacing it. There’s nothing taking the place of those jobs that are being lost. And so I think that started to pivot the economics and the politics in the region. And now, that promise of holding onto coal from sort of some of the red state narratives is starting to fade away as well, because folks are saying, “Coal is not coming back.” Whether it be whatever reason that you want to state, it’s just not coming back.
Jacob Hannah: So how do we put aside sort of the abandonment of one party and the false princesses of another, and just sort of look at our own selves and try and figure out, okay, we’re not going to be rescued. In fact, we’ve already been forgotten about, so how do we pull ourselves up out of this mess and make something that means, means something to us at the grassroots level? And that’s how fulfilled started. It’s just one person that was born here in the Huntington area of West Virginia, and decided that they were tired of seeing the things happen here, and that grew to more and more and more local people. So it’s Appalachians trying to help Appalachians out. And so obviously we’re all separated from politics. A lot of our funding comes from governments. So how do we navigate that?
Jacob Hannah: We don’t want to bend with every wind that blows in the area because that’s how extraction happens. And so we’re well positioned to be able to be a great common denominator for any political party, because everyone can agree that jobs is a good thing. Whether that jobs comes from solar, or it comes from economic remodeling of buildings, no one really cares about how it’s done. They just want jobs for the area that doesn’t have jobs. And so that’s been a great unifier for us, for the politics in the area. I think what we’re trying to do is prove that these newer markets are sustainable and are well-suited for Appalachia. And that’s what we’ve been trying to improve and has succeeded with our solar installation before our organization really came into the picture. There was no solar market in West Virginia, and the solar that we’re working with started in the back of an old, empty ice cream truck.
Jacob Hannah: That was just a partner with the vision. And they said, “Hey, we like what you do, you like what we do, let’s work together and build the solar economy.” And now it’s the largest solar installer in the state with almost thousands of installations, residential, commercial, and otherwise in the region with a large getting unionized electrician workforce for that solar installation. So it checks all the boxes and shows that it’s a model that can be replicable in Appalachia. So we’re not necessarily lobbying for certain infrastructure or legislation to pass. We’re trying to show that if the policy deciders to leaders can see that we’re doing works, then that’s the best way we can prove for someone to invest in infrastructure, invest in new green jobs in the area, because we’re showing that on a small scale, this is fantastic and replicable and is needed in all these other counties, aside from ours.
Jacob Hannah: So that’s how we fit really within the political scope is just proving these concepts are suited for Appalachia and are suited for people who have been sort of left behind that it can be done and it should be done. So that’s the best way that I can put that probably how we interface with politics.
Brenda Platt: Yeah, no, that’s good. And I think that the history of the ReUse Corridor, which is now just taking that example is a regional effort, but it started as a local network. And prove the concept. And then it grows and spreads and gets replicated elsewhere. And you’re doing all these businesses and enterprises, and it’s like you said, people are contacting you from all these other cities and communities, “Let’s do this here.” So it seems to be working really well. And we really look forward to following this trajectory and growth of impact in terms of investment dollars, jobs, new businesses, and all of that good stuff. Do you have replication tips for other either communities Appalachia or elsewhere about this model of bottom up local economic development?
Jacob Hannah: Yeah, I do. And I want to tie it in with some of the point you just made too, as well. Even the ReUse Corridor with recycling and upcycling, even that was politicized when we started it. I think there’s such a, just a hyper tension around certain topics to recycle is normally to be associated with something more environmental or something more, “Liberal.” And so what we’re trying to do and what we’ve done since the beginning of this is not tie this to any party or policy, but tie it back to our Appalachian roots. Recycling has been something that’s happened way back when, because folks didn’t have the funds or the opportunities to go out and buy something new. When something broke down, they either fixed it or upcycled it into something new. If something broke, they would try and repair it or build something new out of it or trade it for something else that they could then use in its place. That innovation and ingenuity net Appalachian stick [tuitiveness 00:38:36] is what we’re trying to celebrate and tie this back into this isn’t political, it’s practical.
Jacob Hannah: And this is what are our grandparents’ generations knew and were very, very skilled at. And so how do we reintegrate those values and those skillsets and to something like reuse or upcycling, or even solar to where these haulers or these communities back in more cut off areas of Appalachia can have resiliency through solar if trees are falling down left to right, and mudslides are happening and cutting off the electricity, they’re still able to stay energized and resilient because they’ve invested in this energy or the because they’ve invested in this infrastructure. So I think first of all is find what the narrative is for your region and lead with that, because that’s the values that everyone’s going to agree on. If you can agree that coal was really great for our area and it built everything that we know and appreciate.
Jacob Hannah: So let’s try and integrate that into the platform for launching the new things that we want to see come to fruition. I mean, our name Coalfield Development are solar installer, solar holler, hollers to name for the tight valley between the Appalachian Mountains. And the logo is a man with a pickax and mining the sun. And so tied in with the values and the way that makes sense to the people here in a way that resonates with our pride in the heritage of the region. And then grow from there, had those conversations. And I would say for replication, find the lowest hanging fruits first, whether it’s with the ReUse Corridor, where there’s something like Coalfield Development, the things that can be tackled easily are the things that build momentum. For us, there’s a massive issue with recycling in the area, but we’re not going to try and levy the state government to invest in a $5 million recycling facility. That’s probably never going to happen. That’s the last thing on anyone’s priorities list.
Jacob Hannah: But if we start small with one community and host a collection event, that we can move those materials to someone who is looking for those materials, that’s a win. And if you get everyone on a win, that’s a high, that’s something that is a story. The news articles want to pick it up. People want to come out and volunteer. And then that shows that it’s a model of success and replication. And then those replications happened here and here and here. And before you know, you got a $2 million grant from the federal government, and that grant is building out infrastructure for shredders and recyclers and storage facilities. And then that is going to obviously encourage and promote government involvement to where they’re repairing roads to recycling facilities, they’re investing in infrastructure. And that brings them to the table as well.
Jacob Hannah: So start small, start local, and don’t underestimate those one-to-one connections and conversations and really tied into the values of your community and the values of your region, because otherwise it’s going to feel foreign and unnatural and no one wants be beat over the head about something that they’re not doing. I think that’s what’s happened for a long time in Appalachia. Folks have really pointed the magnifying glass that, “This region is contributing to pollution, it’s contributing to joblessness, contributing to all these negative factors.” And no one wants to just be told that they’re not doing good enough. So how can we help provide the opportunities for those people to be involved in doing good? Everyone wants to do good and wants to have a good quality of life. So let’s provide them with those opportunities and that’ll get any person on board.
Brenda Platt: Jacob. I mean, I think you’re absolutely right. The inspirational storytelling and the narrative is so important and you’re doing it. So I am so inspired by your work. And yeah, this conversation was so great to talk to you. I think we could just talk all day. I want to wrap up with… We usually ask for those of you who listen to this podcast regularly of what your favorite book is, but I’m going rogue today. I want to ask you what your local favorite independent business is?
Jacob Hannah: Oh my goodness gracious. That’s a tough one.
Brenda Platt: So many to choose from, right?
Jacob Hannah: I know, there’s so many doing so many different things that I think are so important. Let me think for a second on that.
Jess Del Fiacco: You could give us a top, two or three, and if you can’t narrow it down to one, we’ll allow that.
Jacob Hannah: I think I’m really excited about an organization that I haven’t been able to interface with much, they’re not really part of our operations, but I’ve been talking to them a little bit throughout in Richwood, West Virginia. And there are a rural community that doesn’t have access to broadband internet. And broadband is a big topic for the region because when you get broadband, you can get access to outside markets and you can market what you do. People can work from home. COVID has really brought a lot of people from urban areas to Appalachia because they want to just get out and have a better quality of life. And they can work from home if they have broadband. And so this small town, they are their own broadband installer. They’ve developed a non-profit to bring about broadband in the area. I think they’re called Richwood Scientific.
Jacob Hannah: And it’s just a really beautiful model of… Like a lot of the questions that’s talked about now, a community sees something that they’re lacking and they’re saying, “I’m not waiting on some mythical savior to come in and bring it, I’m going to bring it myself.” And so they’ve done that. They’ve brought in broadband internet for the community and their region. I think that’s just something that’s beautiful. And it hasn’t really happened yet in Appalachia where someone has just started it on their own. That’s something that’s very technical, very data oriented, high skill, level oriented. And it just, I don’t know, it just shoves it in the face of the stereotype that people in Appalachia or down in the mouth, ignorant, don’t know what to do for themselves. And this is a very highly skilled technical complex system that is giving this community high broadband internet. So I think there’s just a beautiful engineered of story that can be replicated as well.
Brenda Platt: We agree. We have a community broadband initiative. And they’re probably on our map, right Jess?
Jess Del Fiacco: I bet they are. Yeah.
Brenda Platt: Yeah. Great example.
Jess Del Fiacco: The work you’re doing is incredible, Jacob. It was so great to hear about it today. So many good stories that I feel like we barely even got to get into, as Brenda said, we could talk all day, but thank you so much for joining us. Thank you, Brenda, for leading this conversation and thanks everybody for listening.
Brenda Platt: My pleasure.
Jacob Hannah: Thanks for having me.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thank for tuning into this episode of the Building Local Power Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. You can find links to everything discussed today by going to ilsr.org and click on the show page for this episode. That’s ilsr.org. While you’re there, you can sign up for one of our newsletters and connect with us on social media, we hope you also take the opportunity to help us out with a gift that helps produce this very podcast and supports the research and resources we make available for free on our website. Finally, we ask what you let us know how we’re doing with a rating or review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you find your podcasts. This show is produced by me, Jess Del Fiacco and edited by Drew Birschbach. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunctional. For the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I am Jess Del Fiacco, and I hope you join us again in two weeks for the next episode of Building Local Power.

 

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Audio Credit: Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL Ft: Fourstones – Scomber (Bonus Track). Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Photo Credits: Jacob Hannah, Coalfield Development 

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Jess Del Fiacco is ILSR’s Communications Manager. In this role, she works closely with program staff to develop and implement communications strategy that supports ILSR’s mission. She promotes ILSR’s work through the organization’s newsletters, website, social media, events, and more. Jess also hosts the Building Local Power podcast. Contact Jess for media inquiries.