Federal Funds for Appalachian Renewal

Appalachia’s Rugged Beauty

By: Keith Schneider

PAINTSVILLE, KY. – On April 23, 12 weeks after President Joe Biden signed an executive order that promised to help rural regions of the East and Great Plains move past their dependence on fossil energy markets, the administration identified $37.9 billion in existing federal grant and loan accounts to meet the president’s job creation and revitalization goals.

One of those accounts, administered since 2016 by the Department of the Interior, helped start a high-tech manufacturing training center in this eastern Kentucky town that is widely regarded as a singular success story of federal support for development in Appalachian coal country. But that same account, the $115 million-a-year Abandoned Mine Lands Economic Revitalization (AMLER) grant program, also illustrates the complexity and challenge of developing 21st century economies in regions so heavily influenced by 20th century fuels.

The 40,000 square-foot training center here in Johnson County, shaded by the 80-foot highwall of a reclaimed abandoned coal mine, is the home of Eastern Kentucky Advanced Manufacturing Institute. In 2016 and 2017, the newly-organized institute was awarded two grants totaling $3.5 million from the AMLER program, which specifically calls for projects that produce new jobs on or adjacent to reclaimed abandoned mines.

eKAMI, as it’s known, has run with that idea. The non-profit institute has trained more than 200 eastern Kentucky workers, most of them men, many of them laid off coal miners, since its first class in 2017. During the 15-week course, which also is supported by a separate federal grant, students learn to program and operate digital machining tools and autonomous robots. eKAMI’s students graduate to $28 to $32 per hour jobs in the thriving Middle Atlantic intelligent manufacturing sector. The non-profit group itself employs 8 people.

eKAMI has established such a credible track record that it won $6.4 million more in AMLER grants in 2018 and 2020 to build and staff a similar training center 40 miles west at the medium-security Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex in Morgan County, the state’s largest prison.

“Manufacturers are seeking a talented workforce. They’re here recruiting even before our classes graduate,” said Kathy Walker, a former coal industry executive who founded eKAMI in 2015. “Our waiting lists are long. We have a lot of people who want to work. It takes courage to flip the switch from mining to 21st century advanced manufacturing. But they find out they can do it.”

Yet even as it is recognized in Washington and Frankfort, Kentucky’s capital, as a champion Appalachian job developer, eKAMI also illustrates another principle of targeting federal funding to foster development in declining fossil energy regions. Producing good jobs and revitalizing regional economies is exceptionally difficult. More money is just a start.