Champions of the game: Prosperous counties
By Jill Riepenhoff and Mark Ferenchik
consume big slice of Appalachian pie
Dispatch Staff Reporters Sept. 27, 1999
(Above) Security guard Tony Mathias, 37, keeps an eye on the NFL Carolina Panthers during summer training camp in Spartanburg, S.C. Panthers, not paychecks, attracted Johnnie Collins to a security job in Spartanburg, S.C. Collins, 46, already made $12.85 an hour working full time at a cotton mill.
The temporary security position, he figured, would offer the best chance to schmooze with the NFL's Carolina Panthers during summer training camp. Maybe he'd corner guard Nate Newton for an autograph.
Tony Mathias, on the other hand, needed some extra money to support his wife and four children. Fortunately, opportunities abound in his home county.
"You can't go to the employment office here and walk out without a job," said Mathias, 37.
Lasting only as long as the six-week training camp, the security jobs were part of the sales pitch that attracted $750,000 in 1995 from the Appalachian Regional Commission. The grant helped build a $2 million football stadium for private Wofford College and adjacent practice fields for the Panthers.
Two words - jobs and tourism - often send the federal agency scrambling for its taxpayer-funded checkbook.
As a result, much of the agency's money goes not to the neediest areas but to booming communities such as Spartanburg. The Southern city is far removed from the images of poverty that prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to make Appalachia a national priority.
Collins struggles to understand how his hometown qualifies for Appalachian money.
"I don't think of Spartanburg as Appalachia," he said. "It ain't like West Virginia."
After all, more than 350 manufacturers produce goods in Spartanburg County, and local government officials boast in advertisements that the area "should enjoy a very healthy economic climate for many years to come."
Push for reform
The Appalachian Regional Commission, established in 1965, distributes tax money throughout all or parts of 13 states from New York to Mississippi. The region encompasses 406 counties, including 29 in Ohio.
Through fiscal 1998, the commission allocated $7.4 billion - $16.4 billion after accounting for inflation.
About two-thirds went to highway construction. The remaining $6 billion paid for water lines, sewers, worker training, tourism projects, day-care centers and other programs designed to help struggling Appalachians free themselves from poverty's clutches.
Much of those tax dollars, however, bypassed the counties with persistent problems, a Dispatch analysis of commission spending shows. Instead, the agency pumped millions into counties such as Spartanburg, which received $80 million from the commission.
Spartanburg would not have benefited at all, though, had the task force set up by President John F. Kennedy to study Appalachia had its way.
In recommending the commission's creation, the panel in 1964 suggested boundaries for Appalachia that included no counties in South Carolina, New York or Mississippi.
Political pressure led Congress to add portions of those three states to the federally recognized region. The states have collected an inflation-adjusted $2.3 billion - about $1 of every $7 spent - from the commission.
Because each state in the region is guaranteed annual funding, none of that money could have been redirected to struggling communities in Appalachia's core.
Told of the findings, Ohio Gov. Bob Taft questioned the allocation process, wondering why the most impoverished counties don't receive the bulk of the money.
He plans to lobby West Virginia Gov. Cecil Underwood and Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton to join him in pushing for more money for struggling communities. Two-thirds of Appalachia's poorest counties are clustered in southeast Ohio, eastern Kentucky and West Virginia.
"We need to be aggressive advocating for our counties," Taft said. "I do intend to be active. It's worth working on and trying to get something done here."
Year after year, the consequences play out in places such as Wirt County, W.Va., about 30 miles south of Marietta.
Like 107 other Appalachian counties, Wirt has been declared economically distressed by the commission, based on a formula that takes into account unemployment, poverty and per-capita incomes. The county of 5,700 residents has held the designation every year since the commission's creation.
Nonetheless, the agency has spent only $684,447 there, the 13th-lowest among all 406 counties.
Water and sewer lines have yet to reach the western side of the county, an area ripe for development because of its proximity to I-77, county Commissioner Charles Murray said.
The county has just one factory: a raft manufacturer that pays minimum wage.
"That's the best we've got," Murray said.
Farther north, in Ohio's Meigs County, the unemployment rate rarely dips into single digits. Many residents who do have jobs make long commutes from their homes near the Ohio River.
At least a dozen residents travel four hours to Lima, in northwest Ohio, to work 12-day stints at manufacturing jobs that pay $9.50 an hour, said John Musser, a Meigs County resident and Pomeroy village councilman.
During the 1990s, as the commission has routed more help their way, distressed counties have fared somewhat better.
Meigs County, for example, ranks No. 255 in money received from the commission since 1965. But for the past five years - since President Clinton tapped Jesse L. White Jr. to lead the agency - it finishes No. 32.
"It is an evolving story," White said. "We haven't been as satisfied with what we do with the money. We're not sure we've come up with the most creative ways to build self-sufficiency."
Since White's arrival, the commission has set aside 30 percent of its nonhighway-related funds for distressed counties - up from 20 percent in previous years.
Despite those efforts, the top recipients of agency spending during White's tenure include three longtime grant winners that never have been distressed: the counties of Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Allegany, Md.; and Spartanburg, S.C.
White, who persuaded the 13 governors to increase funding for distressed counties, has no authority to eliminate prosperous counties or states from the mix.
Congress alone has the power to change the boundaries of Appalachia, a reality that troubles the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a leading advocate for the region.
Federal lawmakers, he said, care little about the area.
Jackson said he was amazed to learn that his home county of Greenville, S.C., continues to receive agency money while needier communities in southeastern Ohio, eastern Kentucky and West Virginia struggle.
"I would call that Senate neglect," he said. "Appalachia represents the apple of our moral eye. When we lift Appalachia, we lift all of America."
If the United States can spend millions to rebuild Poland and the Ukraine and billions on a war in Kosovo, Jackson said, it can spend more money to help Appalachians.
"These are arguably the hardest-working people," he said. "Why can't they get the best America has to offer?"
Any effort to channel yet additional money to distressed counties likely would face a mountain of political opposition. Agency funds often go toward projects championed by governors or powerful members of Congress.
The Wofford College stadium project underscores the political jockeying that permeates the process.
Carroll Campbell, governor of South Carolina in the early 1990s, badly wanted the Carolina Panthers to make the private college in Spartanburg their summer home. So did team owner Jerry Richardson, a Wofford graduate and trustee.
The NFL expansion team had a new stadium in Charlotte, N.C., but wanted separate summer practice facilities.
Wofford officials had hoped eventually to build a new stadium but had no such plans until the idea of hosting the Panthers summer camp surfaced, said Doyle Boggs, the college's communications director.
In the application for commission funding, project supporters emphasized the jobs and tourism it would create. In 1996, the Panthers arrived for training at their neatly manicured Spartanburg facility and Wofford College had a new 13,000-seat stadium.
The project, once approved, ignited a firestorm of protest. During a March 1997 hearing, members of a House subcommittee grilled the commission's director.
"How can we allow that kind of judgment call to be made?" asked then-U.S. Rep. Vic Fazio, D-California.
White responded: "This was a high priority of the Republican governor of the state. It has renewed our vigilance for not only the substance of projects but the appearance of projects."
Yet after the Panthers' flap, White signed off on grants to his home state of Mississippi for the William Faulkner Centennial Celebration and Civil War tourist sites in Corinth.
White said he can't confirm whether predictions for jobs and tourism proved true for the Wofford project.
"I sign 600 projects a year," he said. "I don't know the specific results of all of them."
In 1997, though, he defended the Panthers grant, saying it would draw as many as 800 tourists a day to the training camp and create hundreds of jobs for low-income residents of central-city Spartanburg.
The first couple of years, tourists flocked to see the Panthers, but the crowds have dwindled to about 50 daily. The jobs created amounted to temporary work for about a dozen college students and football fans.
If projects promise to create jobs - even temporary ones - or attract tourists, White says he'll likely approve them because of the ripple effect on the local economy.
Spartanburg officials contend that each day of training camp adds $864,000 in spending at hotels, restaurants and other businesses.
While Spartanburg County has benefited repeatedly from agency spending, no county has received more grants than Allegany County, Md. - 261.
The western Maryland county of 72,000 has received $80 million, making it No. 4 on the agency's spending list.
In the 1990s, much of the money from 33 grants has gone to promote tourism in its county seat, Cumberland.
The commission sent $1.7 million to help renovate the plaza at the Western Maryland Railway Station, a historic train depot; the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad; and Canal Place, the former C&O Canal.
Richard Pfefferkorn, executive director of the Canal Place Preservation and Development Authority, calls the Appalachian money a "small but very important" key to redevelopment efforts in what he terms a struggling industrial city.
"It's not the salvation for Cumberland," he said. "It's an important piece of the puzzle."
From his office, Pfefferkorn watches the scenic railroad snake north along a creek, noting the full parking lot nearby. Someday, he hopes to see mules pulling canal boats loaded with tourists. Shops, restaurants, apartments and bed-and-breakfasts are likely to follow.
More attractions mean more jobs. Cumberland has seen thousands of jobs leave since the 1970s because of plant closures, including Kelly-Springfield tires, the city's flagship company.
"A lot of people grow up here and stay here," Pfefferkorn said. "A lot of kids want to stay here but are forced to leave because of a lack of jobs. It's tough to find a decent job here."
The economic struggles of Cumberland perhaps are no different from what Youngstown, Ohio, faced trying to redefine itself after losing many jobs in manufacturing.
But Youngstown had freeways. Cumberland was isolated until the agency-funded I-68 was completed in 1988, connecting it to the East Coast and to Morgantown, W.Va.
Cumberland now is a 21/2-hour drive from Baltimore and Washington, D.C., trips that used to take four hours, said J. Glenn Beall, a former U.S. senator from Maryland who chairs the Canal Place Authority.
"It's brought tourists here in droves," he said of the freeway - a claim supported by the 16 percent increase in tourism-related jobs in Allegany County between 1994 and 1997.
Beall believes Cumberland is entitled to Appalachian assistance, the type that Spartanburg has tapped easily.
The Panthers boast that their Spartanburg training facilities are among the finest in the NFL. The team has promised to make Spartanburg its summer home at least through 2010.
Johnnie Collins certainly hopes the Panthers' stay is permanent. Next summer, he'd like to work part time again providing security for his football heroes.
"Them Panthers are a great bunch of guys," he said. "I love it."
After the team returned to Charlotte for the regular season, Collins received a paycheck for his six weeks of work. He learned that he had earned $6 an hour.
The money didn't matter. Rubbing elbows was payment enough.
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