TheTimesTribune.com, Corbin, KY
By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service
Its land and people fueled the industrialization of an entire country but that country has largely ignored the ravaged land and the human despair left behind.
Eastern Kentucky produced riches for a coal industry which packed off the profits and left the land scarred and depleted, its people looking for jobs which often don’t exist.
Now when its coal economy is threatened by cheaper fuels and greater regulatory pressures, when it costs more than ever to pry the coal out of ever narrower seams, the rest of Kentucky and the country may not like to be reminded of what’s been left behind: double-digit unemployment; ravaged lands and polluted streams; much higher poverty than in other regions of the country; and dependence on government transfer payments and pain medication.
And no clear way forward. Its people are desperate; they’re fearful; they’re sick of the unfair and inaccurate stereotypes by the outside world.
“Eastern Kentucky has made major contributions nationally in industrializing the country and for decades miners and their families have made sacrifices toward that end,” said Justin Maxson, President of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development located in Berea.
Maxson said despite those contributions there’s been “a major under-investment in the region.”
State Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville, sees the fear and the despair in the eyes of her Pike County constituents as they watch the coal economy crumble, endure the loss of 6,000 more mining jobs and can’t find replacement jobs.
“People come to me every day, people who’ve worked all their lives but now have lost their coal job, and they look at me and say, please, Leslie, find me a job — any job,” Combs said.
Unemployment in Kentucky is 8.3 percent. But it’s 9.7 percent in Pike County and growing. In neighboring Martin County it’s 10.5; 11.4 percent in Floyd County; 17.3 in Magoffin; 15 percent in Letcher. It’s likely to get worse before it gets better.
Lost coal jobs affect employment in support industries, services, food stores and retail outlets. And there just aren’t many places to go for work.
“There are no silver bullets,” according to nearly everyone who spoke about the problem. It’s going to take long-term solutions and the engagement and participation of the people of the region.
Monday in Pikeville, they’re going to hold a summit, called SOAR — Shaping Our Appalachian Region. It’s the idea of Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and 5th District Republican U.S. Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers.
They formed a planning committee of 41 people, presidents of universities, bankers, government officials, coal operators, and business people. More than 1,500 people have pre-registered for the summit at the East Kentucky Expo Center.
There will be breakout sessions on job creation, entrepreneurism, infrastructure, tourism, collaboration, technology, health, leadership and other subjects.
“The summit is not the end,” said Rogers. “It’s the beginning hopefully of a long-term solution to the problems of Eastern Kentucky. It will take a long time. There are no silver bullets here. It’s going to take long-term thinking and working together and planning and coming together.”
The planning group has been criticized by some activist groups for its heavy reliance on business people, but Rogers said the idea is to enlist the participation and ideas of everyone who has a stake in the region.
“I want people to come with an absolutely open mind,” Rogers said. “I want them to think the big thoughts, outside the box, to get a conversation going about what we can do, what can’t we do and what it takes to make something good happen.”
Maxson said despite the exclusion of groups like the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth on the planning committee, he has so far been impressed with the commitment of the planning committee to an open and transparent process.
Like Rogers, Maxson said Monday’s summit is only a beginning and an on-going, collaborative planning process which combines both short-term and longer-term strategies necessary to begin developing a more diverse economy. It must be more than a one-time event or it won’t produce much.
Or as Corbin retired businessman and author Bob Terrell put it, “We must grind out progress one step at a time.”
Terrell and Eastern Kentucky University sociology professor Stephanie McSpirit want to see more coal severance tax money returned to the region but they also say the region’s history of political corruption can’t be tolerated any longer.
They want severance funds and money from the Abandoned Mine Land Fund used to provide immediate employment for laid-off miners whose skills, Maxson says, can be put to use reclaiming mined lands, cleaning up streams and reforestation efforts.
Coal interests have historically not welcomed efforts to develop a wider economy, but it’s different this time, according to Maxson and Rogers.
“The economic situation in the region is so desperate and coal operators from the region understand people need work and they’re not going to be able to help,” Maxson said.
He and McSpirit reject the idea that many in Eastern Kentucky would prefer government handouts than genuine employment. McSpirit says her hardest working students are those from Eastern Kentucky, many of them who work two jobs while carrying a full course load and still caring for a family.
Maxson said it’s not illogical to accept government transfer payments when there is no meaningful work to be found.
“The problem isn’t lazy people, but we have to create economic opportunity that helps people see there’s a path for them where work will result in an income where they can take care of themselves and their families,” Maxson said.
“I don’t know what the answer is,” said Combs, the state lawmaker from Pikeville. “But I swear to God if someone will bring me an answer, I’ll do all I can to make it happen.”
Hopefully, that process begins Monday in Pikeville.
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.