Take a moment to envision Appalachia. What images and places come to mind? For me, it’s friendly front porches, storytelling around campfires, strength and a resilience, a pride and a purpose to place. Now map in your head the Appalachian Region. What area are you thinking of? Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, North Carolina, Virginia… All of these would be correct as each houses pieces of the geographical markers- but what about Ohio, did you think of Ohio?
It’s okay if the answer is no. Many people, politicians, and funders routinely forget the there is a large portion (32 counties of the total 88) of Ohio that lies within the 13 states designated Appalachian by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). This distinction is due to several intrinsic factors, including geography, industry and culture. To simply illustrate forgotten Ohio, take for example the number of projects funded by the ARC in the fiscal year 2013. Of the 400 total projects, only 28 come from Ohio.
Athens, located in South Eastern Ohio has a history shared with our neighboring States. One of extraction and extortion. Salt for the Civil War, iron for the Industrial Revolution, timber for the railways that would carry black diamonds of coal throughout the nation- yes, modernizing America came at the back of Appalachian Ohio. Yet, when twelve strangers piled into passenger vans and began their journey throughout the region- almost none evoked images of Ohio when thinking about Appalachia, and these are people knowledgeable and passionate about the region.
If people outside do not view us as Appalachian, we must take up the mantel of transition as a localized effort. Starting with individual communities, cities, counties, etc., Appalachian Ohio must be independent yet interconnected in our efforts. Athens County is listed as distressed by the ARC, and happens to be the poorest county in the whole of Ohio. Even though “it saw 784 business startups between 1995 and 2000. Athens County is also home to a variety of small companies specializing in biomedical research, renewable energy and gourmet food” (Firstohio.com).
While the City of Athens houses a large State University, the outlying communities are haunted by the legacy of extraction- be it the abandoned coal town Eclipse or the watersheds and rivers un-swimmable due to power plant pollutants. The time is now for the true work to begin. This is where UpGrade Athens comes into play. UpGrade, which is just a more digestible way to say "transition" to the populace, is a multi-sector, countywide collaboration that seeks to raise the Energy I.Q. of Athens County as a whole. The group was formed after Athens began its application to be a competitor for the Georgetown University Energy Prize (GUEP). The Prize, which totals $5 million, is awarded to the community that leads the way in innovative, replicable, and sustainable ways to increase energy efficiency through a two-year period of time. Athens is currently a Quarter Finalist and will (hopefully) be moving into the Semi-Finalist stage in January. While it would be wonderful to win $5 million for our community to continue our energy efforts, UpGrade sees the competition as a motivator for real, systemic, and permanent change for Athens and not as a carrot for temporary good energy behavior.
The time is now for Athens! Through the GUEP, a collaboration of inspirational proportions has begun in the community. Citizens, politicians, educators, students, renters, landlords, energy experts, and dedicated volunteers are drafting the plan for Athens' transition both for the next two years and beyond. UpGrade operates with the overarching mentality that collaboration leads to innovation. As such, they target all aspects of the community. From leased housing to businesses, municipal buildings to public schools - UpGrade has a plan for the creation of Athens as a renewable energy hub. The hub would encapsulate everything from energy education and curriculum development and the State and Community College level, to training and tool lending for local contractors. It would lead to local job creation, revitalization of the local economy, and securing a future of integrity and ingenuity for the county. Athens has had major success with the creation of a local food hub... which has been modeled and replicated throughout the Appalachian Ohio region and beyond. By following that model, and utilizing the local resources that made the food hub a success, UpGrade hopes to see a transition from a legacy of coal to a future of progress.
For more information about the Georgetown University Energy Prize, UpGrade Athens! or the Athens County Ohio food hub, click the links below.
- Carol Davey