TUPELO — With much talk about the proposed Delta Regional Commission, many folks are wondering: What has the similarly-focused Appalachian Regional Commission, established by Congress in 1965 to support economic and social development in the impoverished Appalachian region, done for the business community?
“The Appalachian Regional Commission has done so much to change the face of Appalachian America,” said Nancy Knight, director of the Appalachian Regional Mississippi Program, who has worked for ARC since its inception in 1968 and was named director in 1998 when Glenn McCullough stepped down to run for mayor of Tupelo. “For the 544,400 Mississippians who live in Appalachia, I know what it’s meant to them — water, sewer, and infrastructure improvements, good jobs through the development of industrial parks where companies have located, an improved highway system, education programs that include skills and workforce training, and primary health care in rural communities. I don’t know of any other program that could have done so much with so little to make this change.”
The ARC partners with the governors of the 13 Appalachian states with a presidential appointee that represents the federal government. Each year, Congress appropriates funds, which ARC allocates among its member states. Mississippi’s cut has been as high as $6 million, but suffered cutbacks during “the Reagan days.” Recent non-highway allocations average slightly less than $4 million a year, Knight said.
“In the early 1980s, the ARC was on the chopping block but we never lost funding,” she said. “We came back in with reduced funding.”
About 22 million people live in the 406 counties of the Appalachian Region, with 42% in rural areas, compared to the nation’s 20% rural population. In Mississippi, 22 northeast and north central counties are included in ARC, with 13 as ARC-designated distressed counties for FY 2000, including Alcorn, Chickasaw, Marshall, Noxubee, Tishomingo and Yalobusha. The distressed county program focuses on providing badly needed public facilities, especially systems to furnish clean drinking water and sanitary waste disposal, and human resource projects such as literacy training. Under pre-1983 guidelines, most of these counties were too poor to qualify for federal aid for these facilities.
“We were once one of the poorest regions of one of the poorest states in the country,” Knight said. “Like the larger Appalachia region, we were cut off from the economic prosperity that much of the New South and the nation enjoyed during the last quarter century. Even though the nation had a well-planned and constructed interstate system, our lack of adequate infrastructure isolated us from important economic centers in our state.”
The base for ARC’s economic development achievements, the 3,025-mile Appalachian Development Highway System, is now more than three-fourths complete or under construction. Only 16 miles lack completion in Mississippi, Knight said.
“As America shifted from that of an agrarian society to that of an industrial one, much of the human capital that once thrived in the rolling hills of Appalachia Mississippi departed to greener pastures,” she said. “It created not only a declining population base to support the region, it also contributed to the dramatic decline of wealth and leadership that could help revitalize the dwindling economy. Today, Appalachia Mississippi is becoming a generator of wealth and not a financial drain on America. I’d like to think ARC played a big role in making this happen.”
In the fall of 1994, ARC began a broad-based strategic planning process to assess the commission’s progress and to develop a regional agenda for its future, including an assessment and economic development impact of the 3,025-mile ADHS. Goals have been listed through 2002. Is the commission winding down?
“I hope it’s ongoing,” said Knight. “ARC has worked so well, probably because decisions are made from the local level, not from the top.”
The ARC has only 56 employees, including federal staff, so administrative costs account for only 3% of its annual budget. Each state has one or two state-paid staff people. The Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development administers the technical assistance grant, which pays for salaries and travel.
“The Mississippi Appalachian Program is the governor’s program,” Knight said. “Once we get priorities on projects from planning and development districts, the governor signs off on every project. Our congressional representatives in Washington appropriate the funds, which, of course, makes it really work.”
Here’s how projects are determined: after needed projects, which include water and sewer, health care, education and transportation, are determined on the local level, they are presented to the planning and development districts — there are five in Mississippi — which ARC supports. Each county has a representative on the board of the planning and development districts. After the planning and development districts prioritize projects, ARC, a supplemental funding agency, is usually the last agency called on to fill in funding gaps, Knight said.
“We also provide technical assistance needed in the communities on long-range planning, determining most critical needs,” she said. “We always have more requests than money, so we take the top projects and fund those for the fiscal year. Back-up projects are moved up for funding in the next fiscal year.”
For example, in 1997, community leaders in Winston County received a small grant from ARC to set up a civic leadership program called PRIDE Winston to help jump-start the local economy. Within six months, PRIDE Winston had contributed to opening more than 40 small businesses and the raising of $28,000 in additional sales tax revenue. Volunteers also helped build a playground and began efforts to convert two old buildings into an arts center and a family community center.
The Delta Regional Commission could be beneficial for the Mississippi Delta, Knight said.
“If it’s properly managed and an accountability system is in place, as ARC is, it could happen,” she said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or (601) 364-1018.