Communities in Kentucky hit by a downturn in coal or power-plant jobs could get help with economic development under a program announced Friday.
The program will award grants for a range of work aimed at diversifying local and regional economies, including coming up with development plans, paying to implement plans that are already in place, and training workers, according to federal and state officials.
State agencies, local governments and community organizations will be able to apply for money under the program, which the Obama administration calls the POWER initiative, for Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization.
There will be $28 million to $38 million available for the program, officials said at a news conference in Lexington.
Kentucky communities will have to compete for the money with other places.
However, Jay Williams, head of the federal Economic Development Administration, said Eastern Kentucky is at the heart of a region hit hardest by the loss of coal jobs — the kind of place where the administration wants to target the money.
The number of coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky has plunged by half in recent years as the industry struggles with competition from cheap natural gas and from coal mined elsewhere in the country; tougher federal rules to protect air and water quality; and the depletion of easy-to-reach reserves.
Williams said it's a plus that leaders and citizens in Eastern and Southern Kentucky have worked to identify development ideas through an initiative called Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR.
"It does position them much more strongly to take advantage of the investments we'll be making," Williams said.
U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers and Gov. Steve Beshear put together the SOAR initiative in late 2013 as coal jobs bled away.
Williams, who attended a SOAR meeting last year, said it was no coincidence that he and other federal officials came to Kentucky to announce the grant program.
The EDA will be the lead agency on the program, but it also involves the Department of Labor, the Small Business Administration and the Appalachian Regional Commission, according to news releases.
Beshear said state and local partners will aggressively go after money under the program.
"It is no secret that our Kentucky coal communities have been struggling due to a steady decline in production, and we must continue working on ways to expand economic opportunities there," Beshear said.
Several groups working on diversifying the economy of Eastern Kentucky said money from the program announced Friday could boost investment in fledgling projects and push others from the drawing board to reality.
For instance, programs that might benefit include energy-efficiency projects, efforts to create jobs through local food systems, and assistance for small businesses, said Peter Hille, president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development.
"This kind of investment in Appalachia is a major step toward realizing the vision of a prosperous and sustainable future," Hille said.
Carl Shoupe, a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth from Benham, in Harlan County, said he could see the money being used on a project there that's ready to go: weatherizing people's homes.
"That money can stay in our region and create good work for local folks in the process," Shoupe said.
The grant program announced Friday is part of a larger proposal that President Obama made in February to help communities that have been hurt by changes in the nation's energy landscape.
The president proposed an additional $20 million for a variety of programs, including job training to help laid-off miners; an extra $25 million for the Appalachian Regional Commission to help entrepreneurs in areas hit by coal-job losses; $5 million for communities affected by shutdowns at coal-fired power plants; and $97 million in grants or loans for infrastructure projects in places where changes in the coal industry are causing economic hardship.
Obama also proposed releasing $1 billion from the federal abandoned mine land fund over five years for reclamation projects that could improve the economy of distressed coal communities.
It's not clear that Congress will approve the proposed spending.
However, the money for the grant program federal officials announced Friday is already appropriated and will be awarded this year, Williams said.
Eric Dixon, a KFTC member in Letcher County, applauded the grant program but said that if Congress would approve releasing the $1 billion that Obama called for, "we could see a real boost to economic activity in the region."