Experts: Key to surviving coal’s downturn is local participation, planning

The above maps, provided by the National Association of Counties, show the disparity among counties that produce coal and counties with coal-fired power plants, such as Rocky Mountain Power’s Naughton plant in Kemmerer.

EVANSTON — For communities long dependent on the revenues and jobs created through coal production and coal-fired power plants, the rapid decline in coal’s share of energy production over the past decade is terrifying. People’s livelihoods have been tied to coal, sometimes for generations, and without the prospect of other businesses or employers coming in to fill that gap, individuals, families and entire communities may be teetering on the brink of ruin.

However, it doesn’t have to be that way, according to presenters at the second of four Powder River Basin Resource Council webinars on “Reclaiming and Growing Wyoming’s Future.” Jack Morgan, program manager with the National Association of Counties (NACO), and Brett Schwartz, executive director of the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO) Research Foundation, joined Wyoming Business Council Chief Strategy Officer Sarah Fitz-Gerald to discuss the frightening impacts of coal’s decline for coal communities as well as the very real opportunities such communities have to reinvent themselves during the session entitled “Putting the Challenge in Perspective: Lessons Learned from Coal Communities Across the Country.”

Fitz-Gerald said the long-anticipated and predicted downturn in the energy industry was hastened by the COVID-19 pandemic. “What’s happened in the past three months if what’s always been considered ‘someday,’” she said, “but now that someday is yesterday. It’s come faster and deeper than anybody could have predicted.” However, Fitz-Gerald said perhaps a silver lining to the current situation is that people are now actively seeking new opportunities and innovation because “necessity is the mother of invention.”

Morgan, who specializes in working with rural counties on economic resilience and diversification, particularly in coal-reliant areas, and Schwartz, who also primarily works with rural and small suburban regions, said the national narrative on coal counties is fairly negative at the moment; however, the two also said there are numerous places throughout the country that can be used as models for a successful transition.

While people in coal communities, like those in the southwest and northeast regions of Wyoming, may feel as though the challenges related to coal’s decline are insurmountable or unique, Morgan and Schwartz said there are coal-reliant counties throughout the country that have faced or are facing similar, if not identical, challenges. There are more than 150 coal-producing counties in the United States and 330-plus counties that are home to coal-fired power plants they said, before sharing strategies for successful transition and diversification planning.

Morgan and Schwartz stressed that people in coal country are typically independent, self-reliant and self-sufficient, and those are strengths that can be harnessed to come together to find innovative solutions to problems.

“It’s important to emphasize that no one from the outside is coming in to save you,” said Schwartz. “Locals are the ones with knowledge and the expertise to best guide their communities.” He said models can be found not only in coal counties but in any community in which one industry has historically dominated and then declined.

Schwartz said the focus needs to be on building resilient communities, with resilience defined as “the ability of a region or community to anticipate, withstand and bounce back from shocks, disruptions and stresses,” including weather or climate-related disasters or hazards, the closure of a large employer, the decline of an important industry, changes in the workforce related to effects of automation, COVID-19 and much more.

The use of the word “region” in that definition is intentional and important said Schwartz. Communities within a region share similar risks and hazards and the loss of a large industry or employer can impact multiple communities within a given area. Additionally, communities are interdependent and economies are regional in nature.

Economic diversification refers to regions with “a varied mix of industries and the absence of dominance of any one industry in terms of employment or income.” Economic diversity can refer to a region’s good and services, a region’s talent base and a region’s suppliers and customers.

Places that successfully diversify, according to the speakers, tend to focus on their regional assets and strengths and do their research to understand potential opportunities and threats and learn from other places that have faced similar challenges. Successful communities also make planning an ongoing process, one that continually looks forward proactively to challenges and opportunities instead of only reacting during a crisis, at which point change is more difficult though certainly not impossible.

Advance planning also allows for intentionality, or the opportunity for people to discuss what kind of community they want and then take steps to make that a reality, as opposed to feeling out of control and that a community has no choice but to accept any and every proposal, even when it doesn’t fit into the vision or culture of a place.

Advance planning with local voices provides for opportunities to build a regional consensus, as well as helps identify and shape emerging leaders and provides for greater accountability because the people making decisions are members of the community instead of outsiders. Planning groups should ideally cast a wide net, according to the speakers, including government officials, business owners and representatives, educators, nonprofit agencies and more, as well as including people spanning different generations and income levels. It’s especially important to include low-income and middle-class voices rather than just the affluent members of a community.

Morgan and Schwartz also recommended not focusing on large employers that could come into a community but on the small employers already present or local entrepreneurs with good ideas. “Successful communities have higher local entrepreneurship and large numbers of small businesses,” said Schwartz, saying the vast majority, approximately 87%, of new jobs in communities come from businesses already operating within a region or state.

The importance of exploring multiple forms of “wealth” during the planning process was also emphasized. All too often wealth is used only in monetary terms; however, intentional planning for resilient communities should look at eight types of wealth, working through each to look for assets and weaknesses, including:

• Individual wealth: The existing stock of skills, understanding, physical health and mental wellness in a region’s people

• Intellectual wealth: The existing stock of knowledge, resourcefulness, creativity and innovation in a region’s people, institutions, organizations and sectors

• Social wealth: The existing stock of trust, relationships and networks in a region’s population

• Cultural wealth: The existing stock of traditions, customs, ways of doing and world views in a region’s population

• Natural wealth: The existing stock of natural resources, including water, land, air, plants and animals, in a region’s places

• Built wealth: The existing stock of constructed infrastructure, including buildings, sewer systems, broadband and roads, in a region’s places

• Political wealth: The existing stock of goodwill, influence and power that people, organizations and institutions in the region can exercise in decision making

• Financial wealth: The existing stock of monetary resources available in the region for investment

Speakers then offered multiple examples of communities throughout the country that had used a planning process for resiliency to shift regional economies from those threatened by the decline of coal to those thriving with new businesses and growth. Examples included communities in Virginia who utilized the detail-oriented nature of coal miners to develop new jobs in coding, broadband and cybersecurity at tech firms.

Other communities in Kentucky, Utah and Montana have focused on other markets for coal, including manufacturing, carbon fiber, medical and recreational uses or focused on tourism and the outdoor industry or focused on renewable energy production in wind and solar, for example.

Fitz-Gerald emphasized some of the changes in recent months that may provide growth opportunities for Wyoming. With the huge rise in remote work throughout the pandemic, she said it may be an opportunity to lure people to Wyoming because it’s been demonstrated work can be accomplished in locations other than a business’s home office. Additionally, businesses are looking to expand supply chains for products to new locations in order to avoid having sole suppliers that resulted in product shortages during the spring.

Finally, Fitz-Gerald said people may be looking to move to or recreate in Wyoming’s wide open spaces more than ever because of the impacts of the pandemic on urban areas.

“It’s not about silver bullet solutions or necessarily about big recruitment deals,” said Fitz-Gerald, noting seemingly small steps toward diversification can have huge long-term impacts and dividends.

Schwartz and Morgan agreed. “Be brave. These are tough and challenging conversations to have, but don’t be afraid to have them,” said Schwartz, while Morgan again stressed the value in advance planning. “If you’re just waiting for an opportunity to present itself, it’s too late to prepare,” he said. “Always be preparing and thinking ahead.”

The key is to actively come together, plan and proactively pursue a vision and opportunities, said the speakers. “Small towns that are passive and just wait for things to get better and are defeatist aren’t going to make it,” said Schwartz.

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