How The Appalachian Regional Commission Has Impacted WNC In The Last 10 Years

Sep 5, 2019


  The Appalachian Regional Commission is holding its annual summit this week in Asheville.  The federal organization funds projects in  420 counties in 13 states from Mississippi to New York – including in Western North Carolina. 

 The Appalachian Regional Commission was created in 1965 to work on economic development and infrastructure projects such as highways in the region. 

 Richard Starnes is the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Western Carolina University.  The Asheville native studies Appalachian history and the economic impact of tourism on the region. 

“I think it’s varied. For some the ARC is a program that addresses Appalachian infrastructure and attempts to address the root causes of poverty and on the other side, I hear people say that the ARC doesn’t do much to address the structural roots of that poverty,” explains Starnes, author of “Creating the Land of the Sky: Tourism and Society in Western North Carolina.” 

The Southwestern Commission is one of councils of government in North Carolina that is partially funded by the ARC. Sarah Thompson is its executive director. Thompson explains that the organization is a regional planning commission for the seven western counties. It also helps local governments and organizations find funding and administer ARC funds. 

“You know today ARC is funding our regional broadband study which is today’s necessary infrastructure. So they have evolved as the circumstances of Appalachia has evolved,” says Thompson. 

Over the last 10 years the Commissions has given over $40 million to Western North Carolina for about 130 projects. These run from millions of dollars to under $10,000. According to exclusive ARC data, Graham County has been funded for the most individual projects in the region. 

Here are the county totals for individual projects in Western North Carolina over the last ten years. There was over $12 million in regional projects as well. (Click the image to enlarge.)
Credit Lilly Knoepp/ARC data

Sophia Paulos has been Graham’s economic development director for the last 3 years. Paulos says that looking back at the projects shows how far the county has come. 

“I think it’s really good to see how small projects make a huge difference. If you look at the projects that we had 10 years ago they were planning projects and really basic infrastructure projects,” says Paulos.  

As recently as 2015, the county received funding for their water treatment plants but in the last three years the county’s projects have shifted to focus on community development such as downtown wifi, new town signs and an upcoming mapping app for visitors.