Final webinar on coal transition offers advice and resources for communities

Pictured is a slide from Ben Alexander’s presentation, which identifies some of the many economic development approaches that coal communities have utilized to transition from the natural resource that has been declining for years. Alexander is with the Resources Legacy Fund, and the webinar was the fourth and final in a series provided by the Powder River Basin Resource Council.

EVANSTON — The fourth and final webinar in the Powder River Basin Resource Council’s series entitled “Reclaiming and Growing Wyoming’s Future,” focused on “Funding Wyoming’s Transition.” Speakers included Ben Alexander with the Resources Legacy Fund, Cindy Winland with the Just Transition Fund and Chris Markuson with Colorado’s Blue-Green Alliance, all of whom have been extensively involved with work in rural communities dependent upon energy production and power plants.

Alexander opened by providing some economic context for the presentation, noting that Wyoming is the most energy-focused state in the nation. Long-term trends that have impacted energy-focused economies include components of globalization, automation, industry maturity, competition from developing countries, the development of a modern services economy and information economy and de-localization, all of which have “fundamentally shifted the geography of our economy and opportunities for local places and businesses to compete.”

Alexander has been conducting research on similarities and commonalities between communities in the Intermountain West that have successfully transitioned and diversified from being solely reliant on energy extraction, and coal in particular. His research has become even more timely with the COVID-19 pandemic that in many respects has hastened and worsened the long-predicted decline of coal.

Alexander said adapting to a changing economy is different for urban and rural communities and said many rural communities in particular are “struggling to adapt, in part because we face fierce competition … for some of our natural resource sectors.” He also emphasized the broader transition to a service-based economy on a national scale. Such economies, said Alexander, have a “real mix of high-paying and low-paying jobs, rewarding generally sort of the urban components of the higher knowledge aspects of that services economy and punishing, if you will, some of the lower-skilled aspects of the service delivery economy … that in many places are replacing some of our higher-paying natural resource sector jobs.”

Strategies to address these fundamental shifts through economic development and resiliency, said Alexander, are very localized and unique to each community. He emphasized that economic development is “both an outcome and a process. The outcome side is the creation of jobs and wealth and the improvement in quality of life. The process side is the process that influences growth and restructures the economy.” 

Resilience, said Alexander, is not necessarily about having the fastest growth or generating the most wealth, but about surviving change. “It’s not trying to keep a place or an economy the way it is in the face of change or even about trying to control change. It’s really about shifting attention and resources to cope with or adapt to change.”

Alexander said his research revealed there is no single “silver bullet” for addressing diversification and resiliency processes because all communities are unique and have different assets, challenges and market opportunities. Instead, he said there is a range of techniques and approaches. He said he also began to realize that the response to change is fundamentally different in different areas.

“In the West, we know that economics and culture are closely tied. Our identities and our occupations are closely aligned, and so our response to economic change when one industry is under threat is often very personal and we fight to keep that industry and our identity alive. That’s an entirely legitimate response to change,” said Alexander. “It may not be the most adaptive and resilient response to change, however. More successful places over time don’t focus on trying to keep places the way they are or to control change so much as to figure out how they can benefit from it.” Alexander said declines in key industries, plant closures, etc., are what he describes as “ruptures” that create great upheavals in communities. Dealing with those ruptures requires leadership to either “take the rupture and use it as an opportunity to double down on the past or use it to look at other possibilities.” He said leadership requires not just telling people what they want to hear but telling them the sometimes-painful truth.

Local leadership, then, is critical in helping communities adapt and move forward with economic development strategies. Part of that process, said Alexander, is focusing on a vision, including a lists of area strengths and weaknesses, as well as creating a specific strategy that includes two key components, which he labeled “where to play” and “how to win.”

Alexander said too often leaders in a community will take a “kitchen sink” approach, trying everything to see if something sticks. Knowing “where to play” involves looking at and analyzing opportunities and finding in-demand sectors that align with area resources. “How to win” involves looking at ways to ensure that investments in new training or technology pay off by delivering either the lowest-cost product or a specialized, differentiated in-demand product that isn’t already readily available elsewhere.

Successful economic development requires a long-term strategy and commitment to process as, according to Alexander, it’s not at all unusual for multiple ruptures to occur throughout the life of a community, necessitating repeated adaptation.

Winland, senior fellow with the Just Transition Fund, echoed Alexander’s comments on economics and identity, and addressed the fear that often accompanies the decline in a sector. “A lot of communities are afraid to say it out loud, as though that’s going to cause the plant to close or the mine to close, but it’s important to recognize this is going to be in our future and we need to think about it.”

The Just Transition Fund (JTF) specializes in offering support to communities dealing with a closure and economic transition, working with local officials, business leaders, educational institutions and more. The nonprofit JTF utilizes a hybrid approach to provide both technical assistance and funding to help communities come together, strategize and focus on specific locally-derived and -driven goals and plans and how to meet them.

Winland said the JTF avoids coming in with a “cookie-cutter” solution to just drop on a community and instead focuses on meeting with local people to understand a community’s assets, resources, challenges and more to help locals develop their own vision and solutions. She said unfortunately oftentimes community leaders try to simply find someone else — a “savior” — to just take over the closing plant, utility, etc., to fill the void, which is not actually economic diversification or doing anything to address the inevitable loss of that industry/employer.

The JTF offers free tools online as part of the organization’s technical assistance services, including tools to help start a transition planning process, to help connect to other communities that have faced similar challenges, to help identify public and private funding sources to facilitate employee training and education needed for any successful transition, to provide grant-writing assistance, to help with conducting outreach within communities and facilitating meetings and to share information and resources.

Winland said even if there’s disagreement within a community about politics and policies or about the causes for an industry’s decline, it’s important to develop some consensus on how to proceed and move toward the future, and the JTF can help facilitate meetings to help local leaders find that consensus. “If we aren’t all in the room and working toward the same thing, it’s much less likely to succeed. That sounds like a Miss America statement, but it’s really important.”

The JTF has provided both technical assistance and funding in numerous states around the country, including Wyoming, although the organization doesn’t necessarily have to provide both assistance and funding in any given community. She said the first step in the process is simply to reach out to the JTF to begin an introductory conversation to begin to understand the community, the stage of transition (whether a plant has already closed or whether a closure is imminent, for example) and the goals for the future. Next steps can include outlining resource needs, determining timelines and milestones, helping to develop and implement training and educational programs and more.

Finally, Markuson, director of Colorado and state economic transition policy with the Blue-Green Alliance, spoke about some of the work he has been involved with in Colorado to transition economies from being solely coal reliant. Markuson said a challenge in Colorado and throughout the West has been political unwillingness to recognize how increased demand for clean energy is happening regardless of politics. He said people who don’t believe in climate change, for example, argue a transition is unnecessary; however, that ignores market realities of a continued decline in the predominance of coal in energy production. Conversely, some argue that climate change is so important that the loss of jobs and even entire communities is a justified cost to save the planet. Neither viewpoint is helpful in helping communities transition and survive.

Markuson too said communities often make the mistake of just trying to replace a large employer when a plant closes; however, the community then finds itself in the exact same position when another closure occurs and the economy hasn’t actually been diversified. He emphasized some of the same factors as Alexander and Winland, noting it’s easy to attract “low-wage, low-skilled jobs,” but those aren’t necessarily sustaining to communities or families.

According to Markuson, it’s important to seek assistance and look to other communities that have successfully transitioned in pursuing an economic development plan, in part because it can become a classic “chicken and the egg” scenario. Attracting long-term, community-sustaining employers requires a highly skilled workforce, but it’s challenging to invest in workforce training for an employer that is not yet in the community.

All three presenters repeatedly emphasized the multiple facets of economic development, especially in coal communities. Focusing only on short-term mitigation of economic impacts may help families and communities for a brief period, but it won’t create sustainable jobs. Focusing only on long-term competitive economic opportunities does nothing to immediately help families in need, which often results in families moving away before those opportunities can be realized. Successful plans require a balance of both short-term mitigation and long-term opportunities.

They also all stressed the importance of education, whether that is through community colleges, vocational and technical programs, “stacked” certificate training in which an individual is able to continually work through programs to build credentials and career ladders, apprenticeships or some other training.

It’s crucial to work with local school districts and other educational entities to create needed programs to develop the skilled workforce that can lure stable employers to an area. Especially in the current economic downturn, with community colleges and vocational programs facing huge budget cuts nationally, the three said finding a way to invest in training could offer Wyoming communities a huge competitive advantage.

“America is what it is because of innovation and entrepreneurial spirit,” said Markuson. “We’ve kind of lost that and need to bring it back. Fostering that requires intentional effort … Be bold. The time is now.”

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