Promising trends in Appalachian development

Billy Schumann


Associate Professor of Appalachian Studies/Director of Center for Appalachian Studies
Appalachian State University
Phone: (828) 262-4089


How long have you been studying Appalachia?
I have been studying Appalachia for about 30 years. First starting back in the late 1980s as an undergraduate student, where I took a couple classes and got hooked, and then picked it up in terms of graduate work beginning in the late ‘90s. I’ve been doing community-based research in southern Appalachia where we’re at today, as well as a short time at Berea College in central Appalachia as the NEH Fellow in Appalachian Studies, and then in northern Appalachia at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford for four years as well. I’ve had this really great opportunity to live and work in all three of the major regions of Appalachia.

Do you work much in small towns?
I do a fair bit of work in small towns. Appalachia is predominantly rural, as you know, so a lot of places we work in at the Center are not even incorporated towns, but hamlets and small settlements in rural areas in several counties here in western North Carolina.

What’s your area of expertise?
I’m an anthropologist by training, so I’m interested generally in culture and politics and how those things go together. But in terms of specific things in Appalachia, I’m really interested in community-based development or how we can look at leveraging local assets—sometimes financial, but a lot of times not—to improve the economic opportunities for area communities and people, as well as find ways of thinking about cultural preservation in a very broad sense, where we’re incorporating a diverse idea and understanding of the heritage or history of a particular area.

Are you optimistic about the future of small towns, especially in terms of economic development?
I think there is real possibility there. I think one thing that Appalachia has done very well with—in a lot of parts, not throughout—has been cultural and environmental tourism. I think that’s an important piece of economic development, but other things that point to that potential is this virtual economy. As long as we can continue putting infrastructure into Appalachia to facilitate transitions toward cyber careers, that would be another opportunity.

A third piece that I think is really important, not only in Appalachia, but around the country—we’re seeing a movement towards locality, sometimes expressed as “buy local,” for example. What that means is a lot of people, from all walks of life, from all political persuasions, from different class backgrounds, are seeing the value of supporting local businesses and local cultures and communities through civic engagement. There are some interesting literature and important points to recognize declines in civic activity in the United States as a whole. But I think in some ways, through social media and other means, those communities are re-forming in different and novel ways, and sometimes to meet specific challenges like economic development in small-town Appalachia.

Can you name some towns that are doing things really well in terms of planning for their own future?
I think Abingdon, Virginia, just up the road from us is doing a pretty good job of that. I have been going through and visiting Abingdon for many years and I’ve seen a lot of changes there, I think for the positive. Their farmers market, for example, is a really thriving entity that is getting a lot of different people involved and providing that little bit of extra value-added income for local produce for some farmers there. But also, you see a lot of entrepreneurial activity coming out of there. I think that’s a very interesting example of—not even revitalization, because Abingdon was in pretty good shape—but certainly building on what they’ve got.

I think if you go across the mountain to Whitesburg, Kentucky, you see it’s a very similar story where a downtown that had historic value where everyone shopped and met—in other words, a place of interaction, as well as commerce—declined for many years but has a couple of anchor institutions there. Having visited over the years, you see more businesses coming back, and a little bit more of diversification, where you’re not just having restaurants and pubs and eateries—which are important, and some of the local food movements in Appalachia are quite amazing—but you’re also seeing other types of stores open, other types of retail that suggest that people are willing to spend at least some of their dollars locally to support those businesses and get that value added that you get out of those interactions or those exchanges.

Is the town’s leadership–the mayor and town manager–important?
The town of Boone is another example. I was hesitant to go there, because it’s kind of rooting for the home team, but Boone has really taken strides for many years and in conversation with many different constituencies in town and across the High Country region, as we call it, to sort of get it right with regard to that idea of cultural preservation, but also sustainability for the future. I think the mayor’s office is vital for that work in part because we have to think about sustainability in terms of the ecological and economic sense. Our current mayor is doing a really good job, too, in thinking about the cultural dimensions of that and specifically diversity. I really applaud his efforts to make sure that everyone feels welcome in Boone.

I think that is another piece of economic revitalization anywhere we go in Appalachia, that we have to be welcoming to everyone in our communities to be successful. As I look at that as a researcher, there is certainly literature out there that points to cultural diversity as a driver of entrepreneurial activity, as well as a rebuilding of that social capital that I referenced earlier as a lost commodity as people rethink their civic associations and lifestyles.

What do you wish that mayors and town managers knew that they don’t know?
A project I’m just getting off the ground right now is a book looking at university-community partnerships for sustainability in Appalachia that draws from work my colleagues have done across the region. In other words, this is an edited volume that looks at work in the humanities and the sciences, what have you. I think that it’s maybe not a piece of advice just for mayors, but a piece of advice for institutions, that there are all kinds of ways that we can add to our communities by using academic expertise addressing in some ways that question of the “brain drain”.

But also—and this is why I say this is a two-way conversation—also realizing that academics and universities don’t have all the answers either. So by listening to the needs of communities and then identifying where we sort of overlap with our skill sets and our abilities and our availabilities, and do so in a way that trains students to become leaders and integrated into these communities, I think that we as a society in Appalachia can do much better. It’s not to say that that’s not happening, or that there aren’t already important civic-political relationships that have sustained or supported communities in Appalachia and across America for a long time. Those are important and those have to be part of that conversation too, but I think it’s about broadening that and maybe thinking more creatively about ways that we can leverage non-financial assets to support community development.

Where are you from originally, and how did you get here?
I was born in Raleigh, and then at 2, my family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, then back again to North Carolina, rural North Carolina in the Piedmont in the early ‘80s. I came to Appalachian State as an undergraduate in the late ‘80s. I mentioned that I had taken some Appalachian studies courses, and I graduated and lived the stuff that I read about, in terms of that service economy and the limitations of the tourism economy. About that time, [I] found out about a sustainability master’s in Appalachian studies here, so I came back to school, added a second master’s in political science and then went off and got my Ph.D. at the University of Florida in 2000. I did my fieldwork actually in Wales, so a lot of the stuff I’m interested in is comparative in terms of community regeneration in former mining areas. That’s where I draw some of that inspiration. I came back and had this great postdoc at Berea, taught at Emory & Henry for a year as a visiting professor, and then got a tenure track job at Arkansas. But my family and I wanted to be in Appalachia, so after a few years, we had an opportunity to move to northern Appalachia, so we moved up there and lived in western Pennsylvania and western New York for about four years, and then came back down here.

Are there towns in Wales that are similar to towns here?
Yes and no. There are a lot of interesting parallels between the history of development in Appalachia and Wales. One piece is the coal economy that I mentioned and sort of the decline and transformation of these communities. One village I worked in called Ystradgynlais sits at the base of a former strip mine that has been reclaimed as a community walking area, and is a really interesting testimony to the long-term possibility of reclaiming the earth and doing so in a way that promotes public health and economic development.

Another piece of that, the tourism economy is very similar in terms of the idea of—heritage is a big draw, as well as the environment, so I see a lot of parallels between those two areas. But there’s also a lot of differences culturally in sort of how these communities responded. We do a field school over there every two years or so, ever since 2001, and we bring students over and try to get them involved in community-based projects there, usually through a nonprofit leader. The idea is that you can learn things that you can take home. And you can also contribute to these communities while we are gaining so much by being there and living there and learning from just that experience.