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Reimagine Appalachia discusses development

REIMAGINE APPALACHIA hosted the second session of its fourth annual Reimagine Appalachia January Strategy Summit sessions to discuss ways to improve economic development, environmental justice and social justice within the region.

Joanne Kilgour, executive director of the Ohio River Valley Institute, facilitated the discussion on how federal funding and programs can help “set the stage for a brighter future for our communities and workers in the Ohio River Valley.”

“Communities throughout Appalachia have been engaged in climate sustainability and community-driven economic development planning for decades but often ran into a lack of resources to support the implementation of these well thought out plans and policies,” Kilgour said.

Katie Loudin, director of Strategic Development at the West Virginia Community Development Hub in Charleston, West Virginia, said the hub is the “leading statewide community development nonprofit organization in West Virginia.”

Loudin said the organization provided professional community coaching services to 27 communities last year across central Appalachia.

Loudin said the hub works with local community leadership teams to help the community become more economically sustainable. She said that the organization focuses on rural areas.

“What this looks like is just us working with teams of West Virginians to define the future they want to see and to build the skills and connections to get there,” Loudin said.

Loudin said it’s important to “capture their small and big wins along the way” during the community development process.

“It’s a critical and powerful component of the community development journey,” she said.

Loudin said a large part of community development depends on state or federal funds.

“We’re connecting high-need rural places to these unprecedented federal opportunities, and we feel like we’re uniquely positioned to walk alongside our communities, help them harness the power of their stories and connect them to larger networks in the systems where they can access the necessary resources to bring their plans to fruition. We’re really honored to do this work with our communities, and, I appreciate it,” she said.

According to a press release from Reimagine Appalachia, Loudin has served on the Executive Leadership Team since May 2021. “She enjoys developing resources and cultivating leadership in others to serve rural and historically underinvested communities across Appalachia in her role at the Hub.”

Amelia Bandy, co-founder and executive director of Economic Development Greater East Inc., discussed how public health can hinder economic growth. EDGE is based in McDowell County, West Virginia, and Bandy said that there were a lot of “negative stereotypes” regarding public health in the county.

“It can be challenging but from an EDGE perspective, what we have decided to do is really take a look around at what resources we have in our community for change, because one thing that we are adamant about is that we want to create programming that actually makes positive change and makes an impact and starts to see these statistics tick in the other direction,” Bandy said.

Bandy said that EDGE started off as a group of people with different backgrounds researching ways to help communities economically.

“My background is in public health. It started out with researchers, farmers, a pastor — we sound like a bad bar joke, but what this gave us was everybody having unique perspectives of what community means to them, what the challenges are that they see in their own unique communities and what things seem to be opportunities for us in this area that we can create around,” she said.

The group is a nonprofit that helps farmers, business owners and other producers work together cooperatively.

Bandy said that after doing research in McDowell County, she noticed that people, especially young people, were leaving the area due to limited job opportunities. She said that she wanted to bring more farming and agriculture jobs to the area.

“There was huge potential around food. Food is foundational in every family. To farmers or to agriculture, it’s important in every single thing that we do, and something that we realized is we have the potential to produce very high-quality, high-value items in McDowell County and in the surrounding region,” she said.

Bandy said that EDGE worked to create a mountain farming model for the community to follow.

At the end of the meeting, experts from other various organizations in Appalachia discussed their plans and goals for improving economic development in a round table discussion.

“Our goal at Reimagine is to use the feedback and information from this event to create an action plan for our work for 2024,” Dana Kuhnline, program director at ReImagine Appalachia, said.

For more information and updates about Reimagine Appalachia’s plans for 2024, visit reimagineappalachia.org. A recording and more details about Wednesday’s meeting can be found on the ReImagine Appalachia Facebook page.

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