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Official says Appalachia still lagging, but better

By Melanie B. Smith 340-2468

Parts of Appalachia, including some North Alabama counties, are still plagued by poverty and lag behind other areas of the country, said a chief cheerleader for the Appalachian Regional Commission.

But Richard J. Peltz, alternate federal co-chair of ARC, said the region's poverty rate has improved since the commission's founding in 1965.

The high school graduation rate in Appalachia matches the rest of the U.S. and jobs are more plentiful, he said.

Also, ARC has helped add infrastructure like roads and water and sewer systems.

But there is room for betterment even after 40 years, Peltz said at the North Central Alabama Regional Council of Governments board meeting Wednesday. He also met with the editorial board of The Decatur Daily.

Peltz said Appalachia doesn't see as many of its students going to college compared to other regions.

Highways still aren't up to par, he said.

But Peltz stressed the progress. He noted that ARC funds built Hudson Memorial Bridge over the Tennessee River.

NARCOG Executive Director Ronald Matthews said ARC made possible a river port for Decatur's Boeing plant, now called United Launch Alliance.

Another local ARC-funded project is Corridor V, a project to four-lane highways from Red Bay through Moulton and Decatur and on to Bridgeport. Peltz said that of 145 miles, 88 are done and all but a few miles are authorized.

He said Alabama got about $90 million last year for roads through ARC and $5 million for other projects.

Peltz stressed energy as an ARC priority — developing renewable energy projects such as ethanol, conserving energy and wisely using existing sources like coal.

He also said Appalachian Centers for Higher Education are helping more citizens go to college. One center in Alabama works out of Shelton State Community College.

The centers help students find money for college, but also show them they can succeed there, Peltz said. Research found that lack of money and self-esteem were the two biggest reasons students in Appalachia didn't get more education, he said.

Peltz said some people seem surprised that ARC is still around, and Congress has asked whether it needs to be.

"When (Appalachia) has parity with the rest of the nation, we'll be ready to close the door," he said.

Peltz said his job is to work himself out of a job.

In other business, NARCOG's board picked new officers. Decatur Mayor Don Kyle is chairman, Cullman County Commission Chairman Wiley Kitchens is first vice-chairman, Hartselle Mayor Dwight Tankersley is second vice-chairman and Moulton Mayor Ray Alexander is secretary-treasurer.

The board also approved bylaws for a new North Central Alabama Rural Planning Organization for work on transportation programs.

Appalachian Regional Commission:

  • Provides aid in 12 states along the Appalachian Mountain range.

  • Reaches 37 counties in North Alabama.

  • Classifies Lawrence and Limestone counties as "transitional" in economic status. Four Alabama counties are considered "distressed," down from 26 in 1960.

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