Editor's Note: Since this story was written, Calhoun County has received a rather large grant for ARC to help build a water extension in the county.

By Bob Weaver 2004

After nearly 40 years of work by the Appalachian Regional Commission and $10 billion in federal spending, only eight of the 410 counties in Appalachia are equal to or better than the national average on indicators such as per-capita income, poverty and unemployment rates.

The mission of the ARC was to help the most impoverished counties in America, particularly with the building of infrastructure - roads, water, sewage and basic necessities that would help communities become more self-sufficient.

A study done by the Columbus Dispatch showed the ARC spent most of their money in counties and regions that already have such amenities, infrastructure and jobs.

Poor, rural and low populated counties (few voters) have gotten little, many not having the resources to produce matching money for ARC grants.

Critics have opposed the commission's historical emphasis on aiding the better off, more populous areas of Appalachia rather than the most distressed communities. Those are often rural and have greater needs but fewer people.

The ARC says they have now revised their formula to help the most distressed counties.

Calhoun and all of its surrounding counties, Clay, Roane, Wirt, Ritchie, Braxton and Gilmer are still among the 91 most distressed counties covered by the ARC's 410 county region. Fourteen other West Virginia counties are on the list.

Critics of the agency say lifting Appalachia out of poverty has fallen short of its mission and focused too much of its resources on the region's most populous areas rather than its most distressed.

Most of the grants have gone to urban projects. Some have sparked criticism include funding to lure an auto plant to Tuscaloosa, Alabama and building a new football stadium in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

Money has flowed freely to urban centers that have hundreds of job producing concerns.

ARC has defended its funding of developed areas by saying it is important to get a substantial return on the investment - see quicker results.

Ewell Balltrip, a former representative to the commission from Kentucky, says "The question was, why are we investing money in these centers that have their own economic dynamics?" including infrastructure and jobs.

Appalachian Regional Commission Chairwoman Anne Pope says the number of counties in the region that are considered "distressed" have been reduced from 223 to 91 since 1965.

"ARC is such a political organization that it changes with the whim of politics," says University of Kentucky Professor Ron Eller, an Appalachian scholar writing a book about the region. "A governor leaves and then a project gets de-funded."

Eller says the commission should look "holistically" at funding projects throughout targeted distressed counties to really make changes in those hard-hit areas rather than funding scattered pet projects all over the region.

While some changes reportedly have been made, the least developed counties and the poorest are still near the bottom.

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