Mayors, nonprofit leaders, business people and academics were among those who gathered Monday for discussions about how to press ahead with a sweeping initiative to transform and strengthen the economy in a region spanning four Appalachian states.
The proposal is known as the Marshall Plan for Middle America—a reference to the American-backed rebuilding program in Europe after World War II. Unveiled last year, it outlines a vision for positioning the region as a powerhouse in the nation’s transition towards renewable energy and emerging technologies, like electric vehicles.
The plan has a clear progressive bent—with its focus on green energy, climate change and also its emphasis on incorporating unionized labor. But, in general, supporters are billing themselves as pragmatists who are seeking ways to tap new sources of capital and to work across urban-rural divides, with the hope of boosting the overall fortunes of a region that has been hit hard by years of industrial decline.
About 125 people, including the mayors of Huntington, West Virginia and Pittsburgh, turned out for the first segment of a virtual summit focused on the plan. The event continues on Tuesday and next week.
Renewed attention on the framework comes as Democrats in Congress and the Biden administration push to pass an infrastructure bill with $550 billion in new spending, as well as a broader package that would make $3.5 trillion of investments in a range of domestic programs, including areas like energy, the environment, health care and housing.
West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who hails from the region that the Marshall Plan targets, is a crucial vote Democrats need to usher their agenda through the closely divided Senate. He has also been slow to get behind his party’s proposals, questioning the cost and scope.
Supporters of the Marshall Plan concept say it will require significant federal investment and that it is well aligned with programs and priorities in the two big pieces of legislation pending in Congress. But they also emphasize that they are not just seeking an infusion of federal dollars, that they are looking to draw in investment from the private sector and from sources like pension funds.
One bedrock aspect of the plan is the notion that cities and rural areas around the four states—Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia—in northern Appalachia and the Ohio River Valley, must work together, harnessing their respective strengths in order for the region to move closer to its full potential.
“The goal is to be able to understand where the strategic advantages are for all of the different subregions of northern Appalachia and the Ohio Valley, and recognizing how we should be working to help each other instead of competing against each other,” said Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who will wrap up eight years in office in January after losing a reelection bid earlier this year.
Also underpinning the plan is the idea that the region is rich in assets.
There’s Pittsburgh’s growing tech sector and its universities, including Carnegie Mellon, home to some of the nation’s top computer science programs. There are industrial sites, rail lines and other infrastructure, built during brighter days for coal and steelmaking, that advocates say can be repurposed for new industries. And there is a skilled workforce from mining and other sectors.
For years, the nation relied heavily on communities in Appalachia and the Ohio River Valley to mine coal and produce goods like steel and aluminum. In more recent decades, those industries faltered, including with the collapse of Pittsburgh’s steel sector in the late 1970s and early 1980s and more recently with slides in demand for coal as power plants that burn it have shut down.
As these industries receded, they left behind harsh legacies: blighted mining lands, polluted brownfields, empty buildings and high unemployment rates.
Referencing steel’s crash in Pittsburgh, Peduto said: “It wasn’t that we planned to fail, it was simply that we failed to plan and we can’t make that same mistake twice.” Pittsburgh is now regarded as one of the great Rust Belt turnaround stories. And other cities across the region are also on solid economic footing, like Cincinnati and Louisville.
For many rural areas and smaller cities the outlook is more tenuous.
“Our region desperately needs jobs,” said Stephen Herzenberg, executive director of the Keystone Research Center, a Pennsylvania-based group. Declining male employment levels since the 1960s, he said, have contributed to a situation in West Virginia where 20 out of every 100 men ages 25 to 54 are not employed.
“Depression-era levels,” Herzenberg added.
The thinking with the Marshall Plan is that if communities throughout the region—urban and rural, thriving and struggling—can come together and ride an approaching wave of innovation in the manufacturing and energy sectors, the region as a whole might regain more of its lost economic might, and do this in a way that is cleaner for the environment and more equitable for residents.
But advocates also stress that they are not trying to force a plan that is not a realistic fit for the region and its workers.
“We have to have equivalent jobs to those found in the coal industry,” said Amanda Woodrum, a senior researcher with Policy Matters Ohio, mentioning new battery technology and energy storage as two fields that could possibly provide this type of work.
Leslie Marshall was the lead author of a “roadmap” document for the plan that the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Sustainable Business published last year. (It’s a coincidence that Marshall shares a name with the plan.) She described the report as providing a vision for the plan, not implementation steps. Forums like this week’s summit, she suggested, would help to flesh out ideas about how to proceed.
Marshall highlighted estimates in the roadmap indicating that $60 billion of investments annually, over a decade, in renewable energy projects and energy efficiency would cut carbon emissions in the four states the plan covers in half and to “net zero” by 2050.
“If we meet that goal, we stand to create 410,000 jobs annually, on average, over the next 10 years,” she said.
But pulling off a massive economic overhaul in the region is a tall order. And plenty of past efforts have fizzled.
Parts of Appalachia suffer from deep problems with poverty, opioid addiction and failing infrastructure. The physical terrain, while stunning in places, can also be incredibly tough to work around, with steep hillsides and narrow valleys that can impede transportation and that pose obstacles for projects like broadband build-outs.
Meanwhile, political polarization can easily short circuit programs that have anything to do with clean energy and climate change, with Republicans often skeptical and more likely to voice support for fossil fuel industries, like coal mining and natural gas drilling.
“This work is complex,” said Andrew Salkin, a founding principal with Resilient Cities Catalyst, who moderated Monday’s session. “And it’s not work that happens overnight.”