- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 30, 2016

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - A research institute is developing a strategic plan aimed at spurring employment and new business activity in 19 Alabama counties hard-hit by the decline of the coal industry.

Southern Research will use a $60,202 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission for the work, the Birmingham-based institute announced Tuesday. Southern Research is partnering with the University of Alabama at Birmingham to explore ways that new jobs can be created in Alabama’s coal region, the institute said.

The downturn in the nation’s coal industry has rippled through parts of northwest and central Alabama, where thousands of jobs have been lost, Southern Research said in a statement.

Some of the hardest-hit areas are Jefferson, Tuscaloosa and Walker counties, which have been Alabama’s chief coal-producing counties, the institute said.

Employment in Alabama coal fields decreased 43 percent between 1990 and 2014, as the number of mines fell by half, said Corey Tyree, the institute’s director of energy and environment in Alabama. During that time, more than 21,000 coal-related jobs disappeared in 19 counties, costing their economies more than $1.8 billion in lost wages.

“Looking at the coal mining industry from a long-term perspective, with production at a low point and no clear economic drivers to reverse the negative trends, it’s difficult to see how coal will be a source of job creation in this region of Alabama,” Tyree said in a statement.

“Areas that lose their historical economic base must recognize future opportunities for industrial development and growth, and they must put assets in place that fuel job creation and enhance competitiveness,” Tyree added.

The project’s goal is to “capitalize on the strengths and capabilities of the existing workforce and put people back to work in new industries fueled by creativity and innovation,” Southern Research said in the statement.

Southern Research has its headquarters in Birmingham and also has labs and offices in the Alabama cities of Wilsonville and Huntsville; and in Houston; Frederick, Maryland; Durham, North Carolina; and Cartersville, Georgia.

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