Home Politics Meet John Carey, the Governor’s newest appointment who hopes to change Appalachia for the better

Meet John Carey, the Governor’s newest appointment who hopes to change Appalachia for the better

10 min read

John Carey just started his new position as director of the Governor’s Office of Appalachia, and he is already diving into new projects.

John Carey, the former mayor of Wellston and chancellor of the Ohio Department of Higher Education, was appointed on Feb. 1 as the new director of the Governor’s Office of Appalachia (GOA).

In the last five days, he has met with the Department of Tourism and has traveled all over the state. He visited Athens on Wednesday to talk to the directors of Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs. Friday, he went to Pike County to visit their industrial parks, and he plans to soon head to Cambridge and then Youngstown.

At the end of the month, he’s flying to Washington D.C. to meet with members of the federal Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC).

As director of GOA, Carey is responsible for 32 counties in the state and will work on economic and community development initiatives designed to improve the wellbeing of those living in the region.

The Office also works with Ohio’s four Local Development Districts, as well as with the ARC. The ARC works with 13 states in the Appalachian region on collaborative projects, such as helping communities impacted by the changing coal industry or sending students and teachers from the region to a free STEM summer program.

An alumnus of Ohio University, Carey was the chancellor of the Ohio Department of Higher Education for the last five years. Prior to that, he was an administrator at Shawnee State University, has served in both the Ohio House of Representatives and the Ohio Senate, and was mayor of Wellston, a town in Jackson County, for seven years.

He previously interviewed to work for GOA in 1990, when he was still mayor of Wellston, and has worked with the office on many occasions since then.

Now that he is leading the office, Carey said some of the major areas he’d like to focus on include harnessing higher education opportunities in the region, expanding infrastructure, increasing broadband access, encouraging entrepreneurship and small businesses, and working on solutions for the continuing opioid epidemic.

Carey said he cares deeply about the culture of Appalachia — from its people to the hills that surround the region to the natural resources, namely coal, the region is famous for producing. As a Wellston native, and as someone who has lived and worked in the Appalachian region for years, Carey says he wants to maintain the culture he loves, while also making sure the region is adapting to modern circumstances.

“With changes in the coal industry, we have to adapt and diversify our economy so Appalachia can continue to maintain its heritage, its economy, and its history, while at the same time adapting to new technology and opportunities,” Carey said.

Ultimately, Carey said he wants the people of Appalachia to succeed economically and to have the best opportunities they can in all aspects of life. Carey emphasized that although people tend to focus on the challenges facing Appalachia, there are plenty of things to look forward to, and the region needs a more positive outlook.

“One of the things I think we have to change is the perspective that you can’t be successful and remain in Appalachia,” Carey said. “The idea that we’re from Appalachia, so we’re poor, so we’re trapped — that’s really not helpful. It doesn’t help Appalachia and it doesn’t help the individual people.”

Many who have worked with Carey believe his background allows him to fulfill the needs of the community he is so passionate about.  

John Hemmings, executive director of the local development district for the Ohio Valley Regional Development Commission (OVRDC), has known Carey since he was still mayor of Wellston. Hemmings said Carey would contact OVRDC when he needed money for local projects.

Then, during his time in the state legislature and then again with the Department of Higher Education, Carey sought to help local development districts raise funds for new projects and also offered grant options for vocational schools throughout Appalachia. Hemmings believes these past initiatives render Carey a good fit for the new role.

“John is a deeply rooted Appalachian,” Hemmings said. “He’s a native son and educated in the area, and I think he understands rural and small towns and their needs. He cares about the region, and I think he’ll do good for us.”

It is not just old colleagues that are drawn to Carey’s passion. While Penny Martin, the public information officer for the GOA, has only worked with Carey for a week, she already sees his potential to unite the region.

“I feel we’re very lucky to have him in this role,” Martin said. “He has a very rich background in working and advocating for the region and understanding what the challenges are for Appalachia.”

While he has held numerous different positions over the last several years, his work has always brought him back to Appalachia. Ultimately, he said he feels a sense of responsibility to the region and is dedicated to creating a brighter Appalachian future.

“I do think you have to be familiar with Appalachia to understand the culture and obstacles that people face,” Carey said. “Appalachia has a strong sense of family and place, and I feel that as well. I lived in other places, but I always felt responsible for the region and making things better.”

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