When President John F. Kennedy visited West Virginia during his 1960 campaign, he was astonished by the poverty in the Appalachian region and promised to create a federal assistance program to help the area.
Signed into law by his successor, Lyndon Johnson, the Appalachian Regional Commission has helped spur economic development in the region since 1965. But the ARC's future remains in doubt after President Donald Trump released his proposed budget last week, which called for the elimination of funding to the ARC, among other programs.
"The governors and states would be losing access to this flexible money," Wendy Wasserman, spokeswoman for the ARC, said. "We use Congressionally blessed money in communities that need it badly, which attracts a lot of matching dollars from private investments, and without us that pattern can't go on."
In Athens, the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks, or ACEnet, has been working with ARC on local economic development since 1985, when one of its first funded projects opened: a worker-owned restaurant called Casa Nueva.
"What's unique is that (the ARC) focuses on challenged communities," Leslie Schaller, the director of programs at ACEnet, said. "This section of southeast Ohio typifies the struggles going on (in Appalachia) with job loss and migration of population."
Schaller added that eliminating the program "could have a significant economic impact" on the region.
The ARC is a federal-state partnership that uses federal funding to spur economic growth and construct critical infrastructure. The program currently operates in 420 counties spanning 13 states, from western New York to northeast Mississippi. Of Ohio's 88 counties, 32 are part of the ARC, including Athens.
"Since 1985, our affiliation with (the ARC) has been primarily as a funding partner for the programs and infrastructure we've developed," Schaller said.
According to the state's Development Services Agency, the most recent project funded in Athens was a $500,000 access road built between 2014 and 2015. But the program has paid for numerous projects in the surrounding counties such as water system upgrades and sewer projects. The Athens Metropolitan Housing Committee, which assists low-income families with finding housing, is also funded by ARC. Annually, Ohio receives about $4 million in funding from the program.
Particular focus is given to counties that are deemed "distressed," of which Ohio has four: Adams, Meigs, Pike and Scioto. Athens was considered a distressed county in the 2016 fiscal year but was removed in 2017.
"We look at poverty, median income, unemployment and put them in a big statistical mishmash," Wasserman said. "We come out with a gradation of counties, we identify the counties where there is the greatest economic pressures, and then we work with the governors and state partners to address these areas."
In Columbus, Penny Martin of Ohio Development Services Agency, which works with the ARC, stressed that it was too early to know for sure whether the ARC was truly gone for good.
"It's too early in the budget process," she said. "It's too early to speculate on funding cuts."
As for Schaller, she said she •had seen attempts to cut funding to the ARC before. She felt support from Appalachian politicians might convince President Trump to change his mind.
"I think our elected officials at the federal and state level, they're familiar with the positive impacts this program provides," she said. "We've found that we have strong support from our politicians. Hopefully they'll be interested in reviewing this budget and figuring out what is best."