The Voinovich School's Jason Jolley delivers his closing remarks at the Seventh Annual Appalachian Ohio State of the Region conference.
The Voinovich School's Jason Jolley delivers his closing remarks at the Seventh Annual Appalachian Ohio State of the Region conference.

State of the Region conference emphasizes collaboration for regional transformation

Daniel Kington
June 1, 2018

“Changing the Narrative: Using Rural Wealth Creation to Transform the Region,” was the theme of the Seventh Annual Appalachian Ohio State of the Region conference on May 22 at Ohio University, which brought together over 250 public officials, regional economic development practitioners and representatives from businesses and organizations to discuss investing in the region.

Setting the tone for the day, federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, Tim Thomas, welcomed the crowd with encouraging remarks during his first visit to the region since his appointment earlier this year. “If Appalachia were a stock, I would invest in it,” he said.

Dr. Gilbert Michaud, an assistant professor of practice at Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs and a conference planning committee member, said that the focus of this year’s conference was unique in its broader emphasis on a variety of key regional actors.

“Past Appalachian Ohio State of the Region conferences have focused on large-scale industries, including manufacturing, coal, and oil and gas, which are, of course, central industries in our region,” Michaud said. “This year, while still discussing the importance of these industries, we emphasized and paid closer attention to the role that small businesses and other regional entities play in rural wealth creation.”

The conference featured opening remarks from Thomas, Ohio University President Duane Nellis and Kyle Darton, an economic development representative with the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration. Thomas stressed the importance of seeking integrated solutions to the region’s inter-related challenges, while Nellis emphasized the role that Ohio University can play in leveraging resources to catalyze regional change.

Deborah Markley, the co-director of the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship and the senior vice president with LOCUS Impact Investing, then presented a general framework for understanding rural wealth creation, while Leslie Schaller, the director of programs with the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks, provided concrete examples of Markley’s suggestions, drawing upon the work of ACEnet. The pair examined the importance of all forms of capital for regional development, not only discussing financial capital, but also intellectual, social, cultural, natural, and political capital. They also highlighted the importance creating sustainable change that benefits all people in the region, which they said can be accomplished through rooting wealth in local people, places and firms through local ownership, control and influence, as well as through the inclusion of people on the economic margins.

Markley said that to effectively include the entire region and its people in transformational economic development requires a nuanced understanding of the region’s problems and a collaborative approach to solutions.

“So often we have social service and community-based organizations, who are focused on individual family well-being, siloed off from economic developers, who are thinking about jobs and income,” Markley said. “However, if we’re going to move communities forward, and if we’re going to build lasting wealth in the region, then those are two puzzle pieces that have to fit together.” As an example, Markley cited the need for reliable public transportation for those on the economic margins to become reliable employees.

The following panel, dedicated to wealth creation in the private sector, brought three regional business leaders to the stage in order to build upon the foundation laid by Markley and Schaller. The panelists, including Mike Workman, the president of Contraxx Furniture, Steven Moore, the president and CEO of Wastren Advantage and Lenoard Stepp, Jr., the senior vice president of Ashtabula County Medical Center, all focused on contracting locally whenever possible, creating a positive environment for employees and listening to the customer in order to meet regional needs.  

The day’s third panel, focused on wealth creation with private, public or non-profit partners, delved deeper into the role of collaboration among various entities, across sectors, in building rural wealth. Sean Terrell, the director of special programs at Hocking College, emphasized the role that educational institutions play in wealth creation; Rick Stockburger, the COO of Tech Belt Energy Innovation Center, discussed how listening to and empowering others can maximize impact; and John Molinaro, the president and CEO of Appalachian Partnership Inc., highlighted the importance of partnership to success and impact.

“We’re using the wealth creation framework to take a large industry and move more value in the value chain back to the region where the natural resource is actually located,” Molinaro said of the Forest to Furniture program at the Appalachian Partnership for Economic Growth, a subsidiary of API. The program leverages partnerships across the value chain and across sectors to sell more of the region’s wood resources back to the region as furniture.

Molinaro came back to the stage after lunch for the closing state of the region address, where he was joined by Jeff Finkle, the president and CEO of the International Economic Development Council, and Dr. Jason Jolley, an associate professor of rural economic development at the Voinovich School. The three speakers summarized key conclusions from the conference, emphasizing the role that partnerships and collaboration must play in overcoming the region’s challenges.

In a discussion, Tim Thomas explained the importance of the conference itself as a place where the sort of collaboration considered throughout the day could begin to take roots.

“This conference brings together officials from the federal, state and local levels with representatives of businesses, nonprofits, universities and community colleges, meaning that there are untold opportunities here for positive collaboration,” Thomas said. “Particularly in the context of rural economic development, those opportunities for collaboration are vitally important, because the problems we face here, chiefly the opioid crisis, are all-hands-on-deck problems.”

Molinaro summed up the tasks facing the audience in his closing remarks.

“Overcoming our challenges will require us to step up and come together to build a better future,” he said. “I fervently hope that we leave today recommitted to working with one another to advance the prosperity of region. The state of the region is in your hands.”

The conference was hosted by the Voinovich School as part of OHIO’s Economic Development Administration University Center and sponsored by the Appalachian Partnership for Economic Growth.