Coal-dependent communities and regions face major challenges. A variety of market and technological forces have combined to reduce the demand for coal, creating major obstacles for communities that have relied on coal as an economic driver for generations through mining, transportation, or energy production at coal-fired power plants. Changing conditions in the coal industry resulted in devastating job losses across coal communities, with the lion’s share--87%--of these job losses occurring in the Appalachian region.[i]

While the decline in coal employment in Appalachia has been an ongoing challenge for nearly two decades, these trends became even more pronounced in recent years as Appalachian counties experienced a loss of 23,000 coal jobs from 2011-2015[ii]. These declines were even more staggering in the 22 counties of this project area, as coal employment dropped nearly 50% during this same timeframe.[iii]  The decline in the coal industry has also affected ancillary industries, retailers, and other businesses that were dependent on the coal industry and its workers for their businesses.  Furthermore, declining coal shipments also generate lower tax revenues, leading to major shortfalls in funding for municipal needs, infrastructure, and schools. As a result of these new economic realities, local leaders have been tasked with retraining displaced workers and developing new economic engines. Simultaneously, they have had had to cope with a complex mix of social, environmental and economic concerns – including talent retention and development, environmental contamination, and health care – that greatly complicate their ability to help affected workers, businesses, and local residents.

According to the 2014 Economic Diversity in Appalachia report and tool, more than two-thirds of the counties in this project area scored “Below Average” or “Low” in the economic diversification level scale for employment diversity[iv]. They are heavily reliant on resource extraction, with few other local economic drivers. Without alternative employment options, the decline of the coal industry in these 22 counties has resulted in high unemployment levels and population loss. For many coal communities, especially in Appalachia, coal industry jobs were the last “good” local jobs. Nationally, the average annual wage for US coal miners is about $82,000[v]. In West Virginia, average coal mining salaries are nearly $85,000, more than twice the statewide salary average of $39,519[vi]. So, as coal miners have been displaced, their prospects of finding comparable work at comparable pay have been miniscule.

The development of the coal industry has occurred over a period of more than 150 years. As such, recovery and rebirth are not occurring overnight. The economic transition has been and continues to be painful. Yet rays of hope are also emerging. Fortunately, economic developers and community leaders in Appalachia are developing innovative new approaches that are relevant for any region in the midst of economic transformations. New paths to prosperity are being created, but the process takes time and long-term commitment.  This summary report highlights how a sample of Appalachian communities are progressing in implementing their economic diversification plans after receiving tailored technical assistance from NACo and NADO RF.

As they develop new strategies, coal-impacted regions must address three sets of issues simultaneously: 

  1. Helping coal miners and other workers retrain and find new careers;
  2. Identifying and capturing new business and economic growth opportunities, and
  3. Addressing larger structural challenges facing their communities.


From October 2016 – July 2017, the National Association of Counties (NACo) and the National Association of Development Organizations Research Foundation (NADO RF) partnered with the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) to continue providing mentoring and technical assistance to eleven multi-disciplinary community teams from across Appalachia as they accelerated their efforts to diversify their traditionally coal-reliant economies. This targeted initiative empowered and assisted county officials, regional development organizations, and their local partners in further developing opportunities for economic diversification, job creation, workforce development, and asset-based economic development. Specifically, this effort provided support to these teams in identifying implementable projects and strategies to form competitive proposals for funding under the POWER Initiative, as well as other sources of investment.

These eleven teams – representing 22 counties across Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia – were first formed in 2015 through their participation in NACo and NADO RF’s Coal-Reliant Communities Innovation Challenge, funded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration. County and regional leaders were asked to create teams to apply for the program to gain access to resources and experts that could assist them in retooling their coal-reliant economies in order to become more resilient to changing industry conditions. Teams that submitted winning applications were selected to attend one of three intensive, hands-on workshops guided by expert facilitators, coaches and practitioners. During the course of these workshops – and those that followed as a result of grant funding from ARC – counties and regions designed solutions tailored to their communities’ needs and identified actionable projects that could showcase the innovative potential of coal-reliant communities.