The National Association of Counties: Supporting Economies in Transition

counties-matterUniting America’s 3,069 county governments, the National Association of Counties (NACo) was founded in 1935 to foster the creation of healthy, vibrant and safe counties across the United States.

NACo brings county officials together to advocate with a collective voice on national policy, exchange ideas, pursue transformational county solutions, enrich the public’s understanding of county government and exercise exemplary leadership in public service.

NACo does this by providing technical assistance, training and education programs to county elected officials and county government staff. NACo also conducts research, identifies best practices and convenes county officials and other partners to identify and scale up best practices in a host of different practice areas.

NACo’s Community and Economic Development practice area is focusing on, among other things, diversifying economies in coal-reliant communities.

Coal-Reliant Communities Innovation Challenge

Coal-logoRecognizing that the decline of the coal industry is having serious impacts on the economy in coal-reliant counties, NACo, in partnership with the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO) and with support from the Economic Development Administration (EDA), started the Coal-Reliant Communities Innovation Challenge in 2014.

“Coal-producing counties and regions represent a significant portion of the population and the economic output of many parts of the U.S.,” said Kathy Nothstine, NACo’s Community and Economic Development Program Director. “Many communities, particularly small communities and those in Appalachia, have often been singularly dependent on one industry, or one major employer.”

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Communities across the country are reliant on the coal industry. Click image to view larger

The Innovation Challenge was NACo’s response to the growing need for new economic development strategies in these places. NACo’s partnership with NADO and EDA was formed to support county and regional leaders seeking to diversify and grow their economies and create jobs.

“Our purpose is to boost the innovative potential of places that have largely been dependent on a single industry with diversifying their economies, recognizing the benefits that can come from broadening their economic base, and fostering the growth of other types of industries or other ways to create jobs,” Nothstine said.

Workshops & Strategies

coal-goalsIn 2015, NACo held three rounds of the Innovation Challenge. The winners of this competitive application process received training and technical assistance. The centerpiece of each round was a training workshop.

Each county that attended the workshop brought a diverse team of stakeholders that was ready to tackle a specific community issue.

The goal of each workshop was for each team to develop an implementation roadmap, which is their strategy for short-term and long-term actions, Nothstine said.

Job creation was the key focus area for most communities.

“Typically, coal miners are skilled jobs and well-paid positions,” Nothstine said. “Communities were concerned about what kinds of opportunities could be available to their residents who were mid-career, have families and are seeking new employment.”

Communities at the workshops discussed how to create opportunities, a big part of which is workforce re-training, as well as finding new opportunities for industry clusters and advanced manufacturing development.

Participants were encouraged to identify their assets and how they could leverage those assets to attract and grow new industries. Entrepreneurship, small business development, infrastructure and, especially in more rural and mountainous regions, extending broadband, were discussed as strategies to create economic opportunities.

Places were encouraged to identify their assets and how they could leverage those assets to attract and grow new industries.

Since many teams were from rural, mountainous and scenic places, some communities discussed ways they could foster tourism, sustainable tourism, sustainable agriculture and local food systems, seeing those as growth sectors.

Harlan County, Kentucky

Harlan, Kentucky (David Stephenson/Wall Street Journal)

Harlan, Kentucky was once a thriving coal mining town (David Stephenson/Wall Street Journal)

Harlan County, which attended the first workshop in Pikeville, Kentucky, in April 2015, has been highly reliant on coal for generations. To avoid falling victim to the same issue in the future, the county is looking to diversify its economy in a way that is sustainable and that is focused on its strengths, rather than replace the coal industry with just one other industry.

Since the workshop, the county has established an economic development authority, as well as a county tourism commission to better promote the area as a destination.

Harlan County has also moved forward with plans for a new manufacturing facility that will be built on a former coal mining site.

They have developed ad campaigns around county tourism and are looking to further foster the growth of small businesses in the county.

Rio Blanco County, Colorado

Colowyo Coal Mine near Craig, Colo (Patrick Kelly/Craig Daily Press via AP)

Colowyo Coal Mine in Rio Blanco County (Patrick Kelly/Craig Daily Press via AP)

Rio Blanco County attended the workshop in in Grand Junction, Colorado, in September 2015.

Since the workshop, the county moved forward with their plans for a broadband expansion program throughout the remote parts of the county. Rio Blanco has also partnered with several other counties in the region to promote region-wide tourism and region-wide economic development strategies, and is working on two Main Street programs for downtown revitalization.

Economies in Transition

“The point of this program is to help communities leverage their assets and pursue place-based economic development strategies that promote lasting wealth in communities that allows them to embrace various types of industries and growth sectors that are appropriate for their community,” Nothstine said. “This is not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

This is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

This work is more broadly applicable than just to coal-reliant communities.

“We see this as part of a larger effort that we’re undertaking to support economies in transition, which are places that have largely been reliant on one industry or one employer for a long time, whether that’s coal, manufacturing, the auto industry or any other,” Nothstine said.

As such, the lessons and strategies that Innovation Challenge communities are employing have relevance across a variety of sectors.

This work is more broadly applicable than just to coal-reliant communities.

The key to this work, Nothstine says, is identifying a community’s assets, what kind of future the residents want to have for themselves and for their children, and how they can bring these resources to bear to achieve those community-based goals.

Although the program is too new to have any measurable outcomes, the partnerships being built and steps being taken to diversify economies point to a more vibrant future for communities that will no longer be coal-reliant.

Learn more about economic diversification in coal-reliant communities in NACo’s podcast: