HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — Communities in nine U.S. states that have been hard-hit by coal layoffs are being promised more than 3,000 jobs in several industries through a multimillion-dollar federal grant.
Officials for the Appalachian Regional Commission and other agencies announced the 29 projects totaling nearly $39 million Wednesday at a news conference in Huntington, West Virginia. The investments are expected to create or retain more than 3,400 jobs in agriculture, health care, manufacturing, technology and other industries. The projects are intended to help communities in Texas and in eight Appalachian states: Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.
"Appalachia is the next great investment opportunity in America," said Appalachian Regional Commission federal co-chair Earl Gohl.
Some of the grants will enable laid-off coal miners to participate in job retraining. The commission says about 23,000 Appalachian coal jobs were lost between 2011 and 2015.
Laid-off coal miner Bo Copley of Delbarton has three children, and his wife's job as a professional photographer is the family's main source of income.
Although he was unaware of the grant package announced Wednesday, Copley said help is needed in West Virginia, whose seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 5.7 percent in July was tied for the ninth highest in the country.
"Anything that can help bolster the economy in our area is a good thing, especially if it's outside of coal," Copley said Wednesday. "Right now we need to have some sort of diversity so we don't fall into the same situations. If coal were to make a comeback sometime down the road, we don't want to fall into the same (predicament) we're in right now."
Other grants would fund programs to tackle prescription-drug abuse and bring broadband internet service to rural communities — both prevailing issues in Appalachia.
The largest grant award, $7.5 million, goes to the University of Pikeville in Kentucky to help launch only the second optometry college in central Appalachia. The college would be expected to graduate 60 optometrists within the first three years and provide care to 12,000 patients.
A $1.5 million grant to Appalachian Sustainable Development, a nonprofit organization based in Abingdon, Virginia, is aimed at developing a distribution network for local foods in five states.
Officials said matching grants from other public and private partners are expected to bring an additional $67 million in investments.
"We believe that these investments will serve as a catalytic moment to transform these communities," said Jay Williams, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development.
The projects represent a portion of the $65.8 million that President Barack Obama's administration made available through the multiagency Partnership for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization initiative, or POWER. The Appalachian Regional Commission alone received $45 million of that to distribute to communities to help them diversify their economies, create new jobs and retrain workers.