By Stefanie Jackson – The Eastern Shore is part of the Black Belt, a southern U.S. region that curves from Virginia to Mississippi, covering many counties across seven states, which are in economic distress but may soon be able to receive federal assistance.
The Southeast Crescent Regional Commission (SCRC) was formed in 2008 to invest federal funds in the region, directing it away from poverty and toward prosperity.
The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), which was formed in 1965 and currently receives about $165 million in federal funds annually, was the model for the SCRC.
The SCRC originally was authorized for $30 million, but that was reduced to an annual federal budget appropriation of $250,000.
The money cannot be spent until the U.S. President appoints a co-chair to the commission, a task which none of the last three presidents completed.
But the Southeast Crescent Regional Commission found new hope when it successfully contacted the office of President-elect Joe Biden, and Congress increased the commission’s annual federal budget appropriation from $250,000 to $1 million.
With the appointment of a commission co-chair expected later in 2021, the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities hosted an online forum Feb. 10 to discuss how the SCRC should prepare to begin operations.
Tamarah Holmes, of the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development and ARC, said the keys are community capacity building and asset-based development.
That means the community takes responsibility for its own development, leveraging its strengths – its collective resources, skills, and experiences.
“Our residents are our biggest asset. We believe that in Virginia,” Holmes said.
The Appalachian community focused on its strengths to build what she calls a “creative economy.”
For example, Appalachia is home to The Crooked Road, a 300-mile route through southwest Virginia created in 2003 to promote the region’s heritage music but also outdoor recreational and tourism opportunities.
Holmes noted that investing in infrastructure such as sanitary sewer brings a dual benefit because not only is a necessary service provided, local waters get cleaned up, which supports recreational opportunities and other economy boosters.
Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, agreed that a lack of infrastructure, from roads to internet, is a barrier to economic parity.
Access to capital is also important. Albright said that he once ran his own mortgage company in Alabama because he observed that “our people were being denied access to homeownership.”
Homeownership is often the first step in building assets, wealth, and savings, which can be used for further betterment of the family, such as paying for a child’s education or using the equity in the home to start a business, Albright said.
Politics also can create barriers to economic equality. Democracy and representation are needed, including at the local level.
Albright has witnessed “local governments that have been run by old power structures that have refused outside money, whether that may be federal funding … or outside companies or corporations that are saying, ‘Look, we want to come to your community, and we can bring 100 jobs.’
“We’ve seen local governments that said, ‘We’d rather keep things the way we have in order to maintain the status quo’ … because when you bring in that new development, and when you bring in these economic opportunities, what happens? People start getting these ideas about freedom.”
But there’s a “new South rising … an expansion of political power amongst those who have been at the bottom,” Albright said, referring to the results of the recent U.S. Senate runoff elections in Georgia.
A well-funded federal commission for the Black Belt will bring economic development and give residents “a stake in the system,” motivating further civic engagement, Albright said.
This story will be continued in next week’s edition of the Eastern Shore Post.