Economic loss and community decline is generally perceived as collateral damage of vast economic storms. But the economy is not the weather. It is shaped on all levels by decisions and actions of groups of people. On a personal level, our quality of life and opportunity is shaped by networks of people and groups with whom we interact on the job, in school, at city hall, in church, and so forth. Within these networks there is a flow of Information, growth of alliances, negotiation of transactions and exchange of goods and services. The networks of the local economy survive the churning of the American corporate economy.
Local response to economic loss usually targets external opportunities — a footloose factory, natural resource extraction, a commercial development — with subsidies, land, infrastructure, and tax abatements. It’s a costly use of public funds, with competition between communities driving costs up. The outcomes – a press release, creation of a new subsidy program, sometimes a ribbon cutting – have not, by themselves, restored standard of living in many places. In the face of increasing challenges from technological change, climate change, illness and pandemic, people are developing new strategies that focus on the networks that underpin community resiliency.
In Washington State, a focus on retrofitting of homes for energy efficiency sustained a growing local economy through the pandemic recession. Closer to home, Ohio’s privatized economic development agency, JobsOhio, has turned to community development strategies that provide small loans, support entrepreneurial startups and fund technical assistance in community planning. These initiatives don’t get the kind of funding the older economic development strategies do, but they are receiving increasing attention from local leaders as the pace of economic change quickens.
The automotive industry, one of Ohio’s biggest employers, is quickly turning to production of electric vehicles (EVs) as governments commit to reduction of fossil fuel emissions and consumers react to climate chaos. Ohio is second only to Michigan in production of motor vehicles parts, mostly for gas-powered cars. The change to EVs means less demand for existing auto parts but more new and different kinds of parts. It is estimated that production of significantly more EVs could create 150,000 new jobs in the United States, given the right set of policies.
In Appalachia Ohio, The Center for the Creation of Cooperation is developing a program to address the coming change, with a focus that can be put to immediate use. The proposal would train people to convert gas-powered cars to EVs. Technical schools and community colleges would provide skills needed, preparing a workforce for the automobile industry of the future. But workers won’t have to wait to use their new skills: training them to convert existing vehicles can be used immediately, giving working families an affordable way to upgrade vehicles and reduce the high and volatile cost of gasoline. This will eliminate the emissions of gas-fueled vehicles, mitigating the climate crisis. This is a triple-bottom line strategy: A win for producers, a win for workers and their families, and a win for the environment.
This proposal has yet another important benefit for the community. This program will create entrepreneurs with specialized training in cooperative management strategies. It not only provides the technical skills to work in an automotive factory but will allow students to build their own business or worker cooperative wherever they live: if they want, in their own backyards. It would build skills, nurture entrepreneurs, and support the time-honored tradition of backyard auto repair – a backbone of the underground economy, crucial to sustaining people through economic hard times.
Other states are already training people to work on EVs. Ten years ago Macomb Community College in Michigan initiated a curriculum that included skills needed to work on EVs: today its Vehicle Engineering Technician program prepares people to work with both electric and automated vehicles. The Heartland Community College in Illinois is developing EV training. The Bay Area’s incentive program helps people pay for a switch to EV. The proposal of the Center for the Creation of Cooperation is unique in that it will provide technical skills, a way to accelerate adoption of EVs, and cooperative management approaches that can be used to build new businesses anchored in the local economy and strengthen local economic and social networks.
Ohio’s General Assembly is sending $500 million of the Biden Administration’s “American Rescue Act Plan” to the 28 counties that make up the Appalachian Ohio region. The Ohio Manufacturers Association just received a $23.5 million grant for manufacturing skills development. Funds should prioritize programs with a triple bottom line to ensure benefits built in the region stay in the region and strengthen community resiliency.
Future blogs will focus on the development of this proposal – organizing supporters and assembling funding for the program, the technical aspects of conversion, and curriculum development for building cooperative worker networks.
Wendy Patton directs the Columbus Program in State Issues for Kent State University’s Department of Political Science and teaches in the graduate program of Public Administration. She worked in the administrations of Governors Celeste and Strickland and most recently, as a senior project Director for Policy Matters Ohio. She has a Bachelor of Arts from Kent State University and a Master of City Planning from the University of California at Berkeley.
Roger Wilkens, Ph.D., is the founder and Executive Director of the Center for the Creation of Cooperation (CCC). Dr. Wilkens has a Ph.D. from the Ohio State University in Instructional Design, vast experience in organizing and educating cooperatives, and the unique experience of converting his classic Volkswagen Beetle to be a totally electric vehicle. Dr. Wilkens was the organizer and initial Executive Director of the Southeast Ohio Public Energy Council (SOPEC), which provides community electrical aggregation and an array of energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. Dr. Wilkens is an educator with over 35 years experience working with various types of cooperatives, including worker, producer, consumer and renewable energy cooperatives. He was a co-founder and early co-director of the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet), where he helped provide cooperative training to 10 cooperatives, including Casa Nueva, and directed ACEnet’s Flexible Manufacturing Networks project. He also served as Director of River Valley Community School and Director of the Dogwood Center for Self Development. Over the past dozen years, under Dr. Wilkens’s leadership, CCC has worked to help organizations and networks develop a cooperative culture. A decade ago, as the need for a transition to clean energy became more pressing, CCC began to focus on organizing in the clean energy sector. In the past decade, CCC organized a Green Schools Initiative, a Pilot Microgrid Project (in conjunction with Ohio University), the Athens Energy Institute, the Appalachian Renewable Energy Consumer Cooperative (ARECC) and the RePower Worker cooperative. CCC is now shifting its efforts to helping the regional coalition, ReImagine Appalachia, to revitalize Appalachia.