Reviving Small-Town Appalachia

DuBois, Pennsylvia. Via Doug Kerr.

The economic recovery of Appalachia cannot happen without building up its small cities and towns. Rural parts need places to develop businesses and they also need a gathering place for community ties to preserve local culture.

Culture and economy go hand in hand in this instance. An interesting city gives people a reason to stay, and attracting people to a small town builds up its economy.

Even outside major metropolitan centers, cities are the key to growth; they generally have higher employment and labor force participation rates. Their density makes it possible to launch a new venture and foster new connections. Economically, those forces are how one industry can group together in one place, such as in Dalton, Georgia, the “carpet capital of the world.”

Leaders in many small towns have realized the economic and social power of a vibrant downtown area. After they started to decline in the second half of the 20th century, attempts to revitalize downtown areas have been popular in small towns across the United States. Turning downtown around isn’t a pipe dream, either. As Jacob R. Lofgren noted in the Drake Journal of Agricultural Law,

In many small towns, strong revitalization programs have created increases in “[s]ales…,property values, occupancy rates, rents,” and–most importantly–downtown shoppers and visitors.

To do it right, small towns need to give up on sprawling strip malls and long avenues with parking deserts. Instead, local leaders need to encourage density around downtown areas. The future belongs to pleasant, walkable cities, not low-density rural areas littered with suburban style sub-developments. If leaders push for density, they can avoid what Charles Marohn of Strong Towns calls the “growth Ponzi scheme” where sprawling new developments create unsustainable maintenance and infrastructure costs. The maintenance cost of sewage lines, roads, and everything else that comes with a suburban housing development is unaffordable in the long run. Tax revenues can’t keep up. But that problem is avoided with denser cities. 

If small cities focus on building up their downtown areas and encouraging density, they could save on long-term costs while creating opportunities to build community, culture, and the economy. Those types of small towns are also popular—just look at their idealized forms in The Andy Griffith Show, It’s a Wonderful Life, and dozens of American sitcoms. 

But Americans have forgotten what they used to know and how they used to build small towns. Mass transit in and small cities has disappeared. So have walkable downtown areas that provide a meeting place and local identity to keep people in touch with one another. It’s no wonder that young people flee rural areas for bigger cities when small towns have given up on Main Street. State and federal policies have made the problem worse as well, subsidizing sprawl and devising programs like “opportunity zones” that favor already-wealthy places rather than struggling areas.

Denser small towns can also help with housing affordability. Media coverage tends to focus on the high cost of housing in a big city, but the lack of rural affordable housing is a growing concern, as the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta noted.

Federal subsidies to help cover rent can help a bit, but assistance is nowhere near the level of demand. If small cities would build more duplexes and apartment buildings rather than only allow detached single-family housing, rents could drop. However, that would require cities to reform or throw out zoning regulations that prevent duplexes and apartment buildings from getting built in the first place. Our grandfathers built beautiful apartments and duplexes; it’s time to respect the wisdom of the past, rather than pretend that high housing costs are a problem caused by gentrification or outsiders.

Changes in small towns, of course, shouldn’t follow one dominant model. Different places have different problems, and they require different solutions. A small town 30 minutes from Pittsburgh or Asheville probably shouldn’t look like a small town 3 hours from a metropolis. A better vision of the future guided by what has worked in similar places should be the leading light.

That vision also needs to be rounded out by local feedback about the problems people face. 

If businesses can’t find reliable workers and colleges need to improve job placement rates for graduates, employers and college leaders need to talk. In Danville, Virginia, local leaders created the Danville Regional Foundation to collaborate on those sorts of issues. “It’s the partnership between our training providers, our economic development folks, and business leaders, making sure that all these partners are coming to the table,” Clark Casteel, president of the DRF, said at a 2019 conference on investing in rural America hosted by the Richmond Fed.

Those problems are coordination problems; rural areas and small towns can suffer from them worse than large urban areas. Sometimes it’s harder to bring people together because the local bonds aren’t there. Regional nonprofits or initiatives can provide a table to work at those issues.

Other times, the coordination problem is spending money on many different projects instead of focusing it on one issue. The problem in Appalachia isn’t necessarily that it doesn’t have enough investment, but that capital is scattered to the winds.

“It isn’t working as well as it could, or working together. There are lots of different funders, but the system is not working as a system. It’s all individual parts and we’re not able to blend the money,” Thomas Watson, executive director of Rural Support Partners in Asheville, North Carolina, said at the Richmond Fed’s conference on investing in rural America. “We need to get investors and foundations working hand in hand. We need to think differently about how we blend technical assistance and grant money and capital to help projects get off the ground.”

Thinking differently might be easier in some places, as small towns can’t be too provincial because they aren’t as self-sufficient as some big cities. Partnerships that include multiple towns (or counties) could be key, as the intrepid think about change regionally, not only locally. But it could be harder, as the status quo bias and local elites comfortable in their position may fight change.

Reviving small towns won’t be easy. Not all of them can recover, either. But local leaders have an opportunity to think beyond their own interests and craft places people will want to stay or move to in the future. The first step will be to admit that the jobs of the past won’t come back and the status quo isn’t sustainable. The next is to figure out local strengths, and what type of place we want our grandchildren to inherit.

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Anthony Hennen is managing editor of expatalachians and managing editor of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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