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Gayle Manchin shares Appalachian Regional Commission’s vision for moving West Virginia and region forward

MORGANTOWN – Gayle Manchin, federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, shared her vision of how ARC can help West Virginian move forward with an audience of local and state leaders gathered Wednesday for the West Virginia Public Education Collaborative’s Focus Forward symposium.

The symposium’s theme was West Virginia’s New Narrative – how the state will progress in the era of artificial intelligence and supercomputing.

ARC was founded in 1965, she said, to help impoverished Appalachia connect to the rest of the country with a modern highway system. Its mission has evolved with the times and ARC has helped communities survive and thrive.

Now, “we’re going to empower them to compete, to compete on a global level. That’s my new narrative for the Appalachian Regional Commission.”

ARC spans 13 states along the Appalachians – West Virginia is the only state entirely inside its footprint – comprising 423 counties and 26 million people.

Manchin – wife of Sen. Joe Manchin and first lady when Joe was governor – said ARC’s original mission of laying concrete highways is 91% complete. There are still a few gaps, such as Corridor H.

But there’s a new challenge. Broadband is the new highway system, she said,

“Every family, every child, every parent, every person has the right to connect to the world through the internet the same way the other parts of our country do,” she said. “It’s always been about a lack of parity.” First concrete, now broadband. “Your ZIP code should never define your destiny.”

COVID pointed out the challenge for Appalachia’s connectivity, she said, with families facing the problems with virtual school and work.

ARC is not a top-down agency, she said. It doesn’t tell communities what to do. It helps them devise their own solutions, seek state help to achieve them, and then comes in as the federal partner.

It offers such aid as the Power Grant to help coal communities rebound and Inspire Grants to help individuals rehabilitate from drug abuse and obtain job training.

ARC has a six-column strategic plan, Manchin said. The sixth is “community capacity,” which is the capacity “to effectively plan and implement strategies, capitalize on funding opportunities, and steer investments toward successful outcomes,” as ARC’s website summarizes it.

To help communities reach capacity, it’s now offering virtual training to help leaders learn to strategize, lay out plans to spend money, share best practices and get technical support.

Manchin has also arranged to put part of ARC’s budget, she said, into a special pot for any states that want to team on a project across state lines. ARC will offer planning money and implementation money. It’s not a competitive program like the Power Grant.

ARC’s focus forward, she told The Dominion Post, is looking for communities that have a vision for the future and helping them get to that next level. The vision may be as basic as a new water system for clean water, or sidewalks for better pedestrian access.

ARC’s footprint ranges from southern New York down to northeast Mississippi. From West Virginia first lady to co-chair of a 13-state region, she’s had to widen her vision. She answered the question, based on her experience, how West Virginians understand what they have in common with someone from New York.

It’s based on their location in the Appalachians, she said. “It’s unbelievable, the commonality.” The people, their attitudes and graciousness, the terrain. “To me what has been a pleasant surprise is how much we do have in common. Overall, it’s something about these mountains that has kind of linked us together.”

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