An American Electric Power (AEP) program aimed at assisting those communities hardest hit by the decline of the coal industry in a way they can successfully rebound economically is being offered to the Mingo County Airport Authority and, consequently, to the county as a whole.

The program, known as the Appalachian Sky Initiative, is a product of AEP’s Economic and Business Development division and represents just one of several prongs of an overall program that is intended to target a certain community’s specific strengths and revitalization needs that then can be used to attract new industry and jobs.

Mingo County Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Leasha Johnson attended this week’s Mingo County Airport Authority meeting and explained what the initiative would entail, as well as to announce a meeting scheduled for next Wednesday that, if agreeable to the MCAA board, will include AEP Aero Ready consultants, the MCAA, and the MCRA.

Johnson said the meeting, which the MCAA board unanimously agreed to attend, will begin that morning at 10 a.m. at the MCRA office and conclude at the Appalachian Region Airport later that afternoon at around 3 p.m.

The overall gist of the meeting at both locations, she explained, will involve discussions about the long-term plans for the airport from both the MCAA’s and MCRA’s perspective, the amount of available property at the site held by both agencies, possible FAA development restrictions, status of current infrastructure development in the area, as well as other relevant discussion points.

Johnson said AEP, along with its economic development partners, which already includes the MCRA, in 2017 launched Appalachian Sky in AEP’s Kentucky territory but eventually expanded to its territories in the Tri-State region, encompassing eastern Kentucky, southwestern Ohio, and western West Virginia.

“AEP and their business and economic development division have become a very good economic development partner,” she said. “They’ve actually already helped the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority certify the Wood Products Industrial Park as one of AEP’s three quality sites in West Virginia, which means that it is complete with infrastructure, access, and all the amenities to foster industrial development.”

A specific beginning aim of the Appalachian Sky Initiative, she pointed out, is first to attract aerospace and aviation industry to these regions by utilizing a strength they already have in place: their workforce.

Johnson said AEP in 2015 and 2017 commissioned a workforce study analysis that ultimately determined that these impacted regions already had a solid workforce available, particularly one that was made up of displaced but very skilled coal miners.

“They determined that this region had eight times the number of welders, fabricators, and machinists than the national average, and that those are the very skills of these displaced coal miners that are conducive and necessary to fostering the growth of aerospace and aviation manufacturing businesses,” she said.

Once this analysis of workforce data was compiled, Johnson further explained, AEP officials began identifying those airports across the region for the purpose of developing the Appalachian Sky Initiative, with the end goal of certifying them as aero ready. The ARA was recently chosen as a viable candidate for this process, she added.

“Pursuant to that initiative, they were trying to help communities ready themselves for diversifying into a post-coal economy that would include aerospace and aviation manufacturing,” she said. “So, essentially AEP’s consultants are coming here to talk to us about what our collaborative plans are for this airport, what our infrastructure needs are, what our assets are, our workforce, as well as many other important and relevant issues.”

Johnson said the service offered by AEP, which comes at no cost to economic development agencies the company assists, not only helps coal-impacted communities shore up their economies and reach their potential through diversification but also helps ensure the continued financial health of AEP itself.

“When the people in their service territories struggle so do they,” she said. “When tax revenues are cut short and jobs are lost and industries shut down, their revenue in turn goes down. So they know it’s in their best interest to help us be successful, because, when we’re growing, so are they.”

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