Recipients of grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission’s Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization, or POWER Initiative, gathered in Athens, Ohio, Wednesday and Thursday to share their experiences.

Representatives from many of the 185 ongoing POWER projects shared how they’re using their funds to diversify the economies in communities hit by the decline of the coal industry.

One such project is the Leveraging Innovation Gateways and Hubs Toward Sustainability (LIGHTS) Regional Innovation network.

Founded in 2016, the organization provides expertise, training and resources to the region through seven innovation facilities across southeast Ohio, with two more planned.

Aaron Payne | Ohio Valley ReSource

POWER Convening participants share what they’ve learned with the ARC.

LIGHTS Executive Director Jennifer Simon said the meeting was a great chance to network with other project participants.

“These are large projects. Our initial project was $2 million and three years long. Being able to leverage what others have learned along the way, I think, it’s really important to all of us.”  

The meeting allowed participants to learn about challenges, solutions and best practices from other projects and how they can apply what they learned to their own.

“Our staff participated heavily in the social media discussions,” Simon said. “I think we’ve come up with some different ads and mechanisms to get the word out about the LIGHTS Regional Innovation network.”

The Appalachian Regional Commission also had the opportunity to learn how they can continue to assist these projects.

“This work is really hard and that’s okay,” Wendy Wasserman, who directs communications for the ARC said. “We can continue to provide opportunities for all these POWER grantees to learn from each other. They’re the smart people on the ground, we’re the funders in D.C. We have a different perspective but we want them all to succeed.”

Among the challenges participants’ addressed were project sustainability, data tracking and access to resources.

Another major challenge is changing the mindset of Appalachian communities that relied on the coal industry for so long.

“Institutionalizing the thought that change is okay and that there is something different that can happen in the economies across the region,” Wasserman said.

This was the third Peer-to-Peer POWER Convening.

Since 2015, the ARC has awarded $148 million toward projects across Appalachian that work to improve the region’s broadband infrastructure, entrepreneurship, and address the addiction crisis and other economic development barriers.

Based at WOUB in Athens, OH, Aaron Payne covers economic transition and the addiction crisis.