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Opinion | We need a Marshall Plan for Middle America, mayors in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky write

It’s why we’re asking for an ambitious federal response to save our industries and communities from destruction: a Marshall Plan for Middle America.

In the post-World War II recovery period, the Marshall Plan was a $13 billion ($143 billion today) investment strategy to rebuild Europe and foster economic and democratic institutions. Like postwar Europe, Middle America faces similar issues of decline — a shared crisis of aging infrastructure, obsolescence of business and government institutions, and the need for upskilling and reskilling the workforce.

We have consulted economic experts about the challenges we face: growing and systemic inequities, a public health crisis and the burdens of climate change. Our shared ideas stem from what we’ve learned.

Virtually no major federal attention has been given to the greater Ohio River Valley since the adoption of the Appalachian Regional Commission in 1965. A new regional and federal collaboration can rebuild and reposition these regions to be economically competitive domestically and globally. Absent such a partnership, it is certain that difficult times will continue and the opportunity will be lost.

We’ve seen the consequences of inaction before. Pittsburgh, for example, never prepared for deindustrialization of heavy manufacturing and steel in the 1980s, and it took 30 years to build its new economy. It was a painful demonstration of how people and communities can be destroyed by believing the world will not change. Pittsburgh and other cities should not repeat this mistake.

Nonpartisan research led by the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Sustainable Business finds that “the Ohio River Valley stands to lose 100,000 jobs as the fossil-fuel economy continues to decline in the face of superior, cost-competitive renewable energy development.” Without action, these jobs will be lost forever, and it will lead to even deeper despair for another generation.

According to our research, taking advantage of our community assets, geographic positioning and the strengths of our regional markets can help create over 400,000 jobs across the region by investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency upgrades to buildings, energy infrastructure and transportation assets.

Renewable sources of power are proving less expensive, and fossil fuel companies are increasingly dependent on federal subsidies to survive. Couldn’t these subsidies be strategically shifted to invest in a green economy that keeps these largely suburban and rural jobs but transitions them, with federal support, into new industries that will grow in the 21st century?

Like our friends at Reimagine Appalachia — a grass-roots community and environmental organization — we believe a Marshall Plan-scale reinvestment is necessary. Rather than a “Green New Deal,” our plan would seed long-term regional investments in Appalachia’s rural and suburban communities, while leveraging the technological successes of our tentpole cities to assist them. The same goes for our neighbors in the Ohio River Valley throughout the Rust Belt and up to the Great Lakes region.

Such cities are already working independently to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement, adopting climate action plans like Pittsburgh’s, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. Our cities are preparing for the new economy through additional but related initiatives, from expanding digital access in Louisville and solar energy in Cincinnati. But we need help to leverage these successes.

To accomplish this, we calculate we’d need $60 billion per year over the next 10 years in the form of federal block grants to local governments, state utilization of tax credits and leveraging of lending programs and strategic equity investments to serve as both catalysts and guarantors of the innovation required to regenerate our communities. Add local delivery systems in construction, local government procurement and an able workforce, and a chemistry for success can be realized.

Gen. George C. Marshall was born in Uniontown, Pa., the county seat of Fayette County. Many people in our parts of Appalachia and the Ohio River Valley still take great pride that our industry helped propel the post-World War II economic boom in our country, which in turn gave us the resources to invest in postwar Europe. By emphasizing these deeply significant ties to our history, we can do for ourselves what we did for the free world.

Mayor William Peduto (D) of Pittsburgh

Mayor Jamael Tito Brown (D) of Youngstown, Ohio

Mayor Nan Whaley (D) of Dayton, Ohio

Mayor Andrew Ginther (D) of Columbus, Ohio

Mayor John Cranley (D) of Cincinnati

Mayor Steve Williams (D) of Huntington, W.Va.

Mayor Ron Dulaney Jr. (D) of Morgantown, W.Va.

Mayor Greg Fischer (D) of Louisville

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