Photo of protesters voicing their opinions on coal jobs at a 2014 EPA hearing in Pittsburgh via Mark Dixon/Blue Lens / Flickr.

Coal production nationwide fell 21 percent nationwide between 2005 and 2015. In the Appalachian region that includes Western Pennsylvania, production dropped even more precipitously — by nearly 45 percent.

That sharp decline, due mainly to the rise of natural gas and dwindling international demand, has left many small communities in the Pittsburgh region struggling with high rates of unemployment and disinvestment.

In the face of this downturn, many Pittsburgh-based civil society groups have stepped up to provide job training and workforce development support in communities that once relied on the coal economy, and their efforts have garnered national attention.

Last week, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), a federal economic development agency, announced more than $1.7 million in support of ongoing economic development initiatives based in Pittsburgh.

“Today’s announcement is continued support for the work already underway to create new opportunities for those living in communities hardest hit by changes in the coal industry,” said ARC Federal Co-Chair Tim Thomas. “These grants are a commitment to long-term diversification and economic growth in Appalachia.”

The money was awarded as part of ARC’s POWER initiative (Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization), a congressionally funded project. Altogether, 35 grants totaling $26.5 million were awarded to projects across the Appalachian region.

Here’s a closer look at the local grantees:

  • Innovation Works, a business incubator and venture fund located at Nova Place on the North Side, received $1,035,000 for their Western Pennsylvania Small Business Services for Coal-Impacted Communities (SBS) program. According to press materials, the program “will provide opportunities through co-working spaces, accelerators and incubators to service business owners, independent contractors and entrepreneurs in communities where there are limited resources.” The program is designed to target 24 counties in Western Pa. that have lost coal production jobs, with the stated goal of leveraging $20 million in related investments for the communities over the next several years.
  • Catalyst Connection, a nonprofit focused on assisting small and medium-sized manufacturing firms, will use its $670,000 from ARC to launch its PA MAKES (Pennsylvania Manufacturing Assistance for Keystone Entrepreneurial Success) initiative. PA MAKES will divide the funds into “mini-grants” which will support small and medium manufacturing enterprises with training and development services to adapt their businesses to a changing economy, an approach the organization refers to as “economic gardening.” PA MAKES aims to work with 42 businesses and create 120 new manufacturing jobs across Western Pa.
  • The Pennsylvania Environmental Council, headquartered on the North Shore, received $72,000 to commission a feasibility study examining how best to connect ongoing and unfinished “rail to trail” projects in the region into one continuous network. The goal is to move tourism, investment and jobs deep into rural Pennsylvania.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.