GUEST COLUMN: How to Draw People Back to Appalachia

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Bridge to Huntington WV seen from Guyandotte. | photo

By John W. Miller | feb19.2021 | Reprinted from

In 2016, Andrew Kefer, a quality analyst, his wife Jessica, a counselor hired by companies to help employees, and their three children, moved to New Cumberland, West Virginia from the Philadelphia suburbs to be closer to her family. For the region, that’s part of a welcome trend. As Emily Badger’s recent exploration of West Virginia in the New York Times points out, crucial to Appalachia’s resurrection is attracting more people with capital and talent back to the area.

After deindustrialization from the 1970s onwards, a story told in our PBS film Moundsville, millions fled to coastal meccas like New York and San Francisco, or bigger inland cities, like Pittsburgh or Cincinnati. Now, the Covid-19 pandemic and higher costs are prompting people to settle in Appalachia and the nearby Rust Belt.

In West Virginia, he “can walk to restaurants, doctors offices, a grocery store, a great bakery and two pharmacies very easily.”

For many, a life where rent is $1,000 a month for a nice house is a godsend. Architect Mary O’Connor moved to Akron from New York City eight years ago for a job. After the job ended, Ms. O’Connor decided to stay in Akron. “All my friends in New York were complaining,“ she said, “and I was like, here I can have all thing things they were complaining about not having.”

To be sure, living in West Virginia isn’t always easy. Kefer says his family misses the fact that in the Philadelphia suburbs there was more of everything— more restaurants, shops, doctors, hospitals, more choices for everything. The kids yearn for “Wawa, Wegmans, and Pennsylvania Dutch Country and being close to New York City,” he said.

Andrew Kefer and offspring. | Contributed photo.

Yet in West Virginia, he points out, he “can walk to restaurants, doctors offices, a grocery store, a great bakery and two pharmacies very easily.”

The family has taken to local customs. Pre-pandemic, they enjoyed many local traditions in the area, such as the Wheeling Celtic Festival (usually held the 1st Saturday in March), annual trips to Kennywood Park, and semi-annual trips to Hozak Farms in Clinton, PA, to hunt down pumpkins and Christmas trees, Kefer said:.

Except for this year, we’ve always gotten a hotel room and done First Night in Downtown Pittsburgh. In the Summer of 2019 we went to Presque Isle State Park in Erie, PA. Locally, we have enjoyed the Old Time Fair at Tomlinson Run State Park, New Cumberland Riverfest. and Chester’s Hometown 4th of July. Our house is a block and a half from where they set off the fireworks — we have a terrific view. I’ve personally adopted cheering on the WVU Mountaineers, Marshall Thundering Herd and Pitt Panthers.

I asked Andrew to reflect on what political and economic leaders might do to bring the region back economically.

Photo by Mark König on Unsplash

How to Draw More People to Appalachia and the Rust Belt | by Andrew Kefer

The pandemic has created an opportunity for this region to attract new residents once again with the rise of remote work. People now have an option to live where they want to live. Perhaps some might be attracted by intangibles that this area already has such as quality and affordable housing stock, friendly people, and some of the best outdoor and cultural activities anywhere. The trick is how can we identify policy decisions that could ultimately attract newcomers to the area? I believe there are four items the region should focus on to grow the population.

Currently, in West Virginia it is legal to be fired from a job or removed from an apartment due to the person that you love. Folks will not come here if this behavior is tolerated.

1 | Broadband

This is by far, the single greatest issue and hindrance to attracting the kind of remote employee that the area so desperately needs. There must be cheap, fast, reliable broadband for everyone, from folks in the hollers, to our inner cities. The tech worker who loves to rock climb and kayak will not move to the New River Gorge Area if she does not have access to reliable internet. The artist looking for loft space in Akron, will not move there if he cannot find a place with broadband.

2 | The Fairness Act (WV Only)

Currently, in West Virginia it is legal to be fired from a job or removed from an apartment due to the person that you love. This is discrimination at its most basic form. Folks will not come here if this behavior is tolerated. To their credit, 14 West Virginia municipalities have updated or created their own equal rights and protection laws on their own. This must be done on a state level to benefit all current and future residents.

Photo by Nitish Meena on Unsplash

3 | Welcome New Immigrants

Soon, the Biden Administration will open U.S. borders to migrants and refugees again. We must aggressively pursue and attract migrants and refugees to the region. Not only does this add much needed diversity here, but these people have proven to be industrious and entrepreneurial citizens once they arrive.

4 | Marketing and relocation incentive

The region needs better and more targeted marketing to attract new residents. Perhaps some advertisements placed in the Sunday New York Times or Sunday Washington Post, touting the inexpensive housing and abundant outdoor opportunities of West Virginia, or a website showcasing the myriad of legacy cultural opportunities in Pittsburgh or the Akron/Cleveland Areas. Another idea would be to establish a ‘relocation incentive program.’ See existing such programs like Tulsa Remote or Relocate to Vermont as examples of successful ones. Rather than funded with government dollars, these could be funded by local philanthropies.

Mi Cucina de Amor outside seating on the West Side of Charleston WV. | Summer 2020 | photo

While population growth should not be the be all end all goal, it does supply much needed funding to local services, such as schools, police, and fire departments. More importantly, new residents support and patronize arts, culture, sports, and other activities that all contribute to the collective quality of life of this region.

My wife and I chose to move here with our family four and a half years ago. She wanted to be closer to her family and we wanted a fresh start. We have found this and so much more.

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