Rebecca Shelton, our coordinator of policy and organizing, continued her trip today with a second stop in East Germany.
Today we continued our stay in East Germany. We started the day by visiting with the manager of a multi-purpose, reinvented building space in the town of Cottbus as part of a movement to energize the economy. The building is a train station that was built in the 1800s. It was purchased and renovated by a private investor. While the investor does hope to see a profit, he is very reasonable about rent given that they are also interested in revitalizing the town.
The renovated train station has start-up spaces for new businesses and technical assistance, materials, and workshops to support entrepreneurs. All of which is provided free of charge to entrepreneurs until their business becomes incorporated. Over 15 years, they have assisted 1000 people, 500 of which have started their own businesses. The building also houses a gallery space for artists and a new bar and restaurant. There are plans to construct an urban garden for youth as well as an assisted living facility. They hope that the space will be intergenerational and serve people of all ages.
The project team hopes to create work opportunities in Cottbus since many people that live in Cottbus commute to work in Berlin. Berlin is about one hour from Cottbus by train. Can you imagine what it would be like to commute to work by train? Would you enjoy it? I certainly enjoyed traveling by train during my week here and being able to spend that hour of my day reading or doing other things rather than driving. However, not every train station can be renovated and converted. One of the topics we discussed is that different ideas are needed for different places. We also discussed that regional collaboration and planning is critical for deciding on what to invest in and where to do it. What kinds of discussions or planning processes within or among our communities in East Kentucky are helpful/successful for thinking about how to reinvest and bring jobs to your communities?
After our visit to the renovated train station, we were able to meet with several community and government members to learn about the policy plan for restructuring the economy as well as the current and continuing process that they conducted in order to develop the policy. Just for a little bit of context, the major mining company in the region, LEAG, employs 8,000 people in mines and power plants. For comparison, the state of Kentucky currently has around 6,000 miners.
The federal government here has committed over 43 BILLION dollars to be spent before 2038. They will use the money to invest in public infrastructure, research institutions, as well as programs to help the development of new economic sectors. In addition, every coal miner that is 58 years or older by 2038 will be allowed to retire early and will get their retirement check as if they had turned 65 (the more typical age of retirement). Those that are younger than 58 will be supported through a retraining program and once they begin a new job, if the job pays less than their previous job the government will give them an additional income for 3-5 years that will make up the difference in their wages. The unions fought for this support for workers. Should we fight for a policy like this in East Kentucky?
One of the more difficult pieces of this work has been trying to identify what to invest in in order to create new jobs. The government has found it critical to work to engage community voices in this process – in some cases, conversations have been held with community members at various churches throughout the region. In another region, they developed a citizen parliament in which community members were elected-in as well as selected by lottery to participate.
Currently, the plan is to invest in the healthcare industry (something that Kentucky is doing as well), culture and heritage-based tourism (as I described to some extent in my previous post), education and research universities/institutions, and new energy production. They told us that even though energy from coal can no longer be produced, they still think it is important to be a region that produces energy for the rest of the country because that is their history. They are investing in battery storage for wind and solar energy, hydrothermal gasification, and research and development for new kinds of energy.
After this interesting discussion, we made our way to Berlin. Tomorrow we will meet with more government officials as well as union representatives to learn more about the policies they have put in place to help support structural, economic change and revitalization in the region.