Editor’s note: This article was first printed May 15 in Mountain State Spotlight.

As the sun beamed down on an unseasonably warm April day, a small group of nurses and community volunteers waited under a white tent on the West Side of Charleston, ready to give Covid-19 tests to anyone who asked.

Women approached with small children in tow, stopping to say hi to the workers outside. As people walked up the street or drove through the adjacent parking lot, a few stopped to be tested.

Things weren’t as busy as they were at the peak of the pandemic, when lines for tests and vaccines in this neighborhood were much longer. But for the Rev. James Patterson, that’s a good sign. He’s now focused on harnessing the impact his group’s efforts have had in the community on a new project: Converting a former Save-a-Lot grocery store into a health center to serve Charleston’s West Side.

The health center project marks a new phase in the work that Patterson’s group, the Partnership of African American Churches, has done to improve health access and outcomes on the West Side, home to one of the largest Black populations in West Virginia.

“Sometimes people in power say ‘you’re trying to create a segregated health care system,’” Patterson says of his work in the state. “I’m trying to desegregate the segregated one that already exists.”

The hope is that the health center will help reduce many of the disparities that the pandemic exposed by servicing communities on the West Side and Kanawha County more broadly. And in a best-case scenario, the Charleston center would just be the beginning — one in a series around the state in some of West Virginia’s most impoverished communities. The $13.5 million in funding needed to finish the Charleston site and help build the other centers, Patterson thought, could come from the more than $1.3 billion in federal money West Virginia was given under the American Rescue Plan Act.

But the pitch Patterson sent Gov. Jim Justice for the funds never received a response. Instead, he watched as lawmakers, at Justice’s request, passed HB 2883, legislation that allocated the majority of the state’s remaining $678 million in ARPA money to the West Virginia Economic Development Authority.

State political leaders argue that using the federal assistance to invest in general economic development will provide more financial opportunities for workers and will bring larger corporations and jobs to West Virginia. But for advocates and community organizations, the decision is frustrating, particularly as so many state efforts to help marginalized and distressed groups remain in dire need of money and could have benefited from the recent flood of federal cash. 

And with the pandemic laying many of West Virginia’s deepest disparities bare, further highlighting ways that race, income, education level, neighborhood and other factors all have impacts on people’s quality of life, advocates fear that the state has missed a once-in-a generation opportunity to help the communities who need aid the most.

An opportunity created by an unprecedented amount of federal relief

As Patterson walks inside the vacant grocery store, his plans become clear. 

He points to a corner, formerly a freezer section, explaining where the center’s primary care services would be set up and where a therapist would sit. A dentist would be stationed nearby. Another part of the center would house a small pharmacy, allowing the center to be a one-stop shop for the local community. 

Patterson’s proud of the progress that has been made. In 2022 the City of Charleston gave the Partnership of African American Churches $440,000 from local American Rescue Plan Act funding to buy the building. The organization is working with an architectural firm to create plans for the redesign, and hopes to keep many of the workers who have helped during the pandemic on as staff. 

“This is going to happen,” Patterson said, smiling as he stood in the shadowed building, surrounded by old grocery signs, chairs, and clusters of donated supplies. “Or I am going to die trying.”

But he’s still short of the funds he needs to complete the Charleston site. A share of the ARPA money would have made things easier. Patterson notes that in a state where there’s rarely enough money on hand to do much of anything, the ARPA funds presented a tremendous opportunity. 

For the Rev. Matthew Watts, a senior pastor at the West Side’s Grace Bible Church, the money was the first real chance in decades for the state to provide targeted relief to poor communities. Like Patterson, Watts also submitted proposals for the state ARPA money to the Governor, calling for $300 million of the money to be distributed directly to counties and municipalities to help address poverty and other local needs. 

“The pandemic has magnified, exacerbated, and shed tremendous light on the challenges that marginalized communities face,” he said, adding that the ARPA money is intended to help address these issues. 

West Virginia received two separate pots of this federal money: The first gave roughly $678 million to local county and municipal governments. The second gave the state government $1.35 billion. 

The money is largely being overseen by the Treasury Department, which has given states until the end of 2024 to obligate the funds and until 2026 to actually spend them. In its guidance, the Treasury Department encouraged state and local governments to use the funds to support communities and businesses negatively affected by the pandemic, adding that a “strong, resilient, and equitable recovery” was a desired outcome. The agency also cautioned states against using the money for general economic development.

Initially, the state made a big deal about getting community feedback on how to spend the money and released a state recovery plan that aligned with the federal guidance, promising to consider “the promotion of equitable outcomes” in the process. 

“We’re being asked to promote inclusive economic development in regions of the state in the planning process, so that historically underrepresented communities are part of and are given a real voice in how these funds are used,” Justice’s deputy chief of staff Ann Urling told lawmakers at the time, adding that the state’s plan should reduce disparities and target those in the most need. 

In 2021, West Virginia’s Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs announced that it would embark on a 16-month listening tour to each of the state’s 55 counties to collect feedback from residents on how they wanted the ARPA money spent. Getting this type of community feedback on the money was encouraged by the federal government, and the fact that the listening tour was specifically conducted by the Office of Minority Affairs suggested that the state was particularly interested in hearing from marginalized groups.

But the tour was never finished. 

In an email, HHOMA executive director Jill Upson said that the tour stopped in May 2022, after visiting 29 counties, well short of its goal. Upson noted that the tour could not continue because the agency lost its executive assistant that month, leaving her as the sole employee of the state office. 

By the beginning of this year, $678 million of the state government’s share remained. And at the request of Gov. Jim Justice, leaders in the House of Delegates introduced a bill to spend that money, with the largest chunk — $500 million — going to the state’s Economic Development Authority. Smaller additional appropriations were earmarked for water and sewer infrastructure and Marshall University.

The state says its plan for the money was informed by the public. Advocates say they were ignored. 

It is still unclear exactly how Justice’s office arrived at the updated plan for the remaining ARPA money; the Governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment, or to detailed questions about how it determined that economic development was the best way to spend so much of the remaining ARPA funds.

Upson says the bill accurately reflects the feedback she got during her office’s truncated tour of the state. 

“One of the primary purposes of the ARPA funding was to mitigate the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic through the promotion of economic development and other measures,” she said. “The unmet needs addressed in the bill were in alignment with community feedback.”

But for advocates like Watts, that explanation is both confusing and frustrating. 

Watts, who also serves as the chairman of the Charleston-based Tuesday Morning Group, says that community-based projects were an ideal use of the money. But even if lawmakers wanted to go a different route, he says that they could have considered funding the multiple pieces of minority and poverty-oriented legislation they’ve passed but never sufficiently funded. 

“What we did was a very well thought out framework,” Watts says of his ARPA proposal, “because there is already legislation codified in law, and state agencies that should be doing things. But they weren’t allocated money or there’s not enough money there.”

He keeps a list of those bills at the ready. There’s a 2004 measure that called for the state to invest in minority economic development and small businesses. A different law created a professional development school pilot program that addressed achievement gaps in counties with higher numbers of Black and low-income students. And he’s still hoping for the state to fully embrace a 2017 bill which created an antipoverty pilot program that wasn’t implemented in the way Black organizers hoped. 

But most of those ideas weren’t on the table when lawmakers hashed out the details of the ARPA spending during this year’s legislative session. When the ARPA bill was amended by the House Finance Committee, the changes were minimal: The money allocated to the Economic Development Authority was reduced to $482 million, and $5 million was also marked for the Department of Economic Development. The remaining money was divided among investments in water and sewer infrastructure, an improvement fund for abandoned buildings, and a $1 million allocation to Marshall University.   

Del. Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, did propose amending the ARPA bill to reduce the amount of money going to the Economic Development Authority and incorporate the Tuesday Morning Group’s spending plan, arguing that communities needed to get money as well. But his proposal was rejected, with critics noting that the ARPA funds given directly to local governments could have been used for community needs. 

“I’m truly disappointed,” Rowe said of his failed effort. “This was really the opportunity, the only one I’ve seen in history here, to take money back home.” 

And Del. Todd Kirby, a freshman Republican from Raleigh County, proposed his own amendment to HB 2883, arguing that all of the money should be taken from the Economic Development Authority and given to the Department of Corrections, the Public Employees Insurance Agency, and local economic development authorities. 

“I felt like this was an easy one,” Kirby said. “Who wouldn’t want the ability to go back to their district and say ‘hey, we’re going to control how this money is spent and we’re going to focus on the needs of our individual communities and districts’.” 

But ultimately, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to send most of the money to the Economic Development Authority.

“I think the direction that we’re looking to go with is to promote and build good jobs,” House Finance Committee vice-chair Del. John Hardy, R-Berkeley, said, adding that “the best social program is a good job and a steady paycheck.”

In an emailed statement, House of Delegates Speaker Roger Hanshaw defended the bill, explaining that for him, long-term investments in infrastructure and job creation were the ideal uses of the federal aid. 

“As the 134 individuals elected by the 1.8 million West Virginians to represent them, it is our job to implement what we think will best serve the long-term interests of the state,” he said.

West Virginia’s leaders have long focused on economic development — with mixed results

West Virginia’s focus on spending millions on unspecific “economic development” isn’t new: Rather, it tracks with how the state has long spent its money, and that trend continued during the pandemic as federal dollars rolled in. Since the first wave of federal money arrived under the CARES Act in 2020, Justice’s office has had oversight over much of the funding that flowed into the state. And some of his spending priorities, particularly his focus on using the money to address longer-term financial planning rather than more urgent needs, have been criticized.

These CARES Act spending decisions also frustrated lawmakers; they passed a bill in 2021 to force the Governor’s office to get legislative approval before appropriating large amounts of federal dollars.

But lawmakers have not been as critical of how ARPA funds, a far more flexible pot, have been used. When $315 million of the money was used to backfill agency coffers in 2022 after the Department of Economic Development spent the same amount to secure a deal with steel manufacturer Nucor for a project in Mason County, lawmakers helped approve the larger deal that brought the company to the state. And more recently, legislators have also supported other economic development projects arguing that they will be the best way to bring more jobs and money to West Virginia. 

History suggests that it isn’t all that clear that economic development deals pursued by the state consistently produce those results, and West Virginia has a long history of not fully seeing a return on investment in large corporations, or even worse, paying for industries that ultimately fail to show up. 

A missed ‘once-in-a-lifetime‘ opportunity

HB 2883 passed on the final day of the session, and was signed by Justice soon after. The Department of Economic Development and the Economic Development Authority did not respond to questions about how the agencies will spend the money they have been allocated.

But no matter how the money is spent, what is clear is that the money is now off of the table to directly help with projects in local communities. Patterson of the Partnership of African American Churches said that while the decisions made in the past few months are ultimately unsurprising, they are still frustrating. 

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to spend a small amount of funding to make a huge improvement in the lives of populations that are in the worst amount of need,” he said.

However, there is some hope that the state can be encouraged to use the economic development funds in ways that could have a broader impact. One potential idea from Watts for example, is that the state use the funding given to the Economic Development Authority to support small businesses and allow local businesses and entrepreneurs to apply for funding. 

“In these distressed and marginalized communities, very few of them are going to get a Nucor plant or a battery plant,” he said. “But there could be a strategic plan for how to help small businesses so that they can create jobs.” 

But even if that happens, community leaders and advocates worry that the state has missed a chance to directly address the needs of marginalized and distressed communities in a way that it may never get again. The effects of that missed opportunity, they argue, will continue to be felt in the state for years. 

“They were playing with house money — this wasn’t the state’s money — it was money from the federal government,” Watts said. “It wasn’t a zero-sum game where we have to do this or this. They could have done some of both.” 

P.R. Lockhart is Mountain State Spotlight’s economic development reporter.

For similar stories, visit mountainstatespotlight.org.

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