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Appalachian Studies Conference: An underutilized resource

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Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, is managing member and broker of West Virginia Commercial LLC. He has been involved in commercial and investment real estate for more than 30 years, and he also is general partner of McCabe Land Co. LP. He has served in the West Virginia Senate since 1998, and is a special project consultant to The State Journal.

The 37th Annual Appalachian Studies Conference was March 28-30 at Marshall University. 

With hundreds of scholars, educators, practitioners, grassroots activists and students, it was an exciting and creative community coming together to focus on the conference theme, "New Appalachia: Known Realities and Imagined Possibilities." It was an inclusive group with one exception, where was the business community? 

The sponsors included Marshall University, the Appalachian Regional Commission, the West Virginia Humanities Council, the Heritage Farm Museum & Village, and the Cabell-Huntington Convention and Visitors Bureau, along with a host of university presses and several local restaurants. But again, where was the business community aside from those in tourism and recreation?

 The theme was about imagining our future here in Appalachia. The ideas and enthusiasm created an uplifting environment charged with optimism. The only negativism expressed was a broadly held belief that business and industry where part of the problem and certainly not to be counted on for the answers for the "New Appalachia." 

Although the conference participants were diverse and were from communities and universities throughout Appalachia, in many regards the presenters where preaching to the choir. It was a confirmation of strongly held beliefs by both the professors and educators as well as students and community activists. These beliefs were that business and industry could not be trusted to find the solutions because of an ingrained culture of exploitation. Coal being displaced by natural gas as a key driver of the economy was felt to be a continuation of the exploitation of past generations. Renewable resources was the answer presented, but there was little if any discussion on how to create the bridge from today's use of fossil fuels to tomorrow's reliance on renewable energy. 

Where were the young scholars in the region's business schools to provide a counter balance?  Where were the professors of economics and management showing the sustainable entrepreneurial business models adaptable to the "New Appalachia?" Of the 400-plus presentations, only a handful offered hopeful suggestions on a new economy built upon sustainable business practices. To Marshall University's credit, it had several presenters applying analytic mapping skills to the problems of abandoned housing in urban areas and the need to look at demographics in mapping strategies for the growth of higher education in the coming decade. 

In a session on Natural Resources, Carrie Kline from Elkins presented a balanced set of interviews titled "Talking Across the Lines on the Oil and Gas Rush." Here industry leaders, elected officials and community members presented their conflicting views in a balanced and thoughtful manner. The aim was to find common ground rather than accentuate the divisiveness. This was a refreshing presentation that was well received. Unfortunately, this program was one of the few examples in the conference of trying to find a common ground with business and industry. 

The problem was the presentation's reflections on sustainable economic and community development from the business perspective were too few in number. Of course this was not unexpected, given who usually attends the Appalachian Studies Conference and who writes articles for its journal. People tend to associate with groups sharing their common interests. For a New Appalachia to actually occur as a sustainable economic and community entity, we need a little cross-fertilization. It is too bad that some of the presentations made during the recent Ethane Development Conference in Charleston could not also have been made at the Appalachian Studies Conference. 

Tom Gellrich of TopLine Analytics made an outstanding presentation on the cost comparison of Chinese made products versus United States production based on the new cost structure afforded by the Marcellus Shale. The creation of a world class manufacturing base should be part of the New Appalachia. Odebrecht Vice President for Business Development David Peebles' keynote address at the same Ethane Development Conference would have been an eye-opener. For an international company to believe sustainability is not possible when people are poor and the environment is at risk would have been music to their ears. 

The point being, business and industry should see that they are represented at gatherings such as the Appalachian Studies Conference. One of the obstacles is that each perspective is largely ignorant of the resources and opportunities afforded by those of differing opinions. We will never reach the true potential of the Appalachian Region until we find ways to work together. The Appalachian Studies Conference brings together the best and the brightest of our educators, students and activists. Perhaps our university business schools should look at preparing articles for the Appalachian Studies Journal and making presentations at the annual conferences. Perhaps professors of history, sociology and environmental sciences should be invited to share their perspectives at conferences like the Ethane Development Conference as we as a state and region try to create the New Appalachia. We must find ways to learn from each other and stop just preaching to the choir. Perhaps the next Appalachian Studies Conference can have as its theme "The New Appalachia: Expanding the Known Realities and Broadening the Imagined Possibilities." We have much to learn from one another.