Capitalism Never Died: Sustaining Appalachia With Indigenous Entrepreneurs

I’d like to explore an important issue related to Appalachia’s past and future: the role of indigenous figures (regional elites) in creating and sustaining business enterprise and economic development. The paper, using historical analysis and argument, will unfold in three parts: 1) an historical example, 2) a brief look at successful enterprises, & 3) a discussion of lessons learned and suggestions for changes in Appalachian studies.

As the colonial or internal periphery models continue to resonate with many, especially after the 2015 ASA Conference Roundtable, it is useful to look at the development trajectory of Appalachian sub-regions in which indigenous figures, building on regional identities, held out against those who would colonize and directed economic and political development. Our case study is the history of the north-central West Virginia region and its economic and political development from 1863 to 1933, stressing how an indigenous elite sought to use the coal industry as an export-base to promote a balanced economy. This section will be largely based on historical research undertaken for my 1995 dissertation at WVU: “Political Culture & the Coal Economy,” and will include brief looks at how theoretical models of regions projected by David Walls and Richard Simon fit empirical reality.

The second section of the paper will examine present-day business enterprises in WV started and sustained by indigenous capitalists: two Morgantown—based companies, Mylan Pharmaceuticals and Med-Express; and a public-private venture, Wolf Creek Park, in Fayette County, WV. What can be we learn from these ventures? Are they promoting a balanced, sustainable economy? This section will be based on newspaper reports, census data, and interviews; it will test the regional development model developed by Niles Hanson and the Appalachian Regional Commission, stressing the importance of public-private partnerships.

The third and concluding section of the paper will look at lessons learned from these case studies. How can we cultivate and use regional identity and public-private partnerships to boost economic development? How can we promote a more entrepreneurial spirit among our young people? Must Appalachian Studies focus solely on rural mountain people or be more in tune with those living in our urban centers?