Middlesboro’s 10,334 residents call their home The Magic City, and something about the Kentucky town’s nickname holds true. Built within a 3.6-mile-wide basin that scientists believe was formed by a giant meteorite, Middlesboro is the first gateway to the American west. Less than a mile from the narrow Cumberland Gap, it’s where frontiersmen first crossed the Appalachian mountain range. In the 1930s, it became the first municipality west of the Atlantic Seaboard to build an electric streetcar system, earning it the moniker “Little Las Vegas”; its renowned arts and crafts, opera house and superior schools won it another sobriquet in the 1950s: “Athens of the Mountains.”
Still the largest city in Southeastern Kentucky, Middlesboro is nestled near the state lines with Tennessee and Virginia. Since the decline of the coal industry, the area’s seen a persistent outmigration due to a lack of viable jobs, losing 1.8 percent of an ever-dwindling population over the past decade. Because there are so few positions (the county’s unemployment hovers north of 9 percent), and many employees aren’t prepared for high-skilled work (one-third of residents dropped out of high school), the median household income is $24,940, putting four in 10 residents of Bell County below the poverty line. Money’s tight and commutes to work are so far that the local newspaper, The Middlesboro Daily News, publishes a sidebar listing the price of gasoline at various stations. So many people now commute to the Volunteer State (where there’s more available jobs and no property or income tax), that Middlesboro’s shopping district has shifted closer to the border to entice drivers to stop on their way out of town.
As the micropolitan center of Southeastern Kentucky’s Promise Zone, one of the first five regions selected to pilot President Barack Obama’s economic redevelopment initiative targeting areas with generations of poverty (there are now 13), Middlesboro is positioning itself for a renaissance. Local organizers say the economic downturn compounded with Central Appalachia’s coal crisis led residents to reevaluate the region’s trajectory. With official support from the federal government (although no guarantee of funding, only extra points on federal grant applications to signal that the community is in dire need of help), a multi-pronged battle is being waged on the root causes and symptoms of unemployment, lackluster education, drug addiction and poor health outcomes across eight counties.
This broad, all-hands-on-deck investment takes a slightly different approach than past redevelopment, where programs concentrated efforts on the worst cases, says Jerry Rickett, executive director of the Kentucky Highland Investment Corporation (KHIC), the lead agency coordinating the Promise Zone. “President Johnson’s War on Poverty focused on poverty. The Promise Zone focuses on the quality of life for everyone,” Rickett explains.
Grant money is funding human capital development, including job training through Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program (EKCEP) and anti-drug classes like Operation UNITE in every county in Southeastern Kentucky. In Rickett’s mind, success would mean a stabilized population and a diversified economy in the region. “Our young people could choose to stay, to raise a family and not worry about denying their children the advantage of a high performing school or finding employment,” he adds.
Past initiatives led to a chicken-and-egg problem where highly skilled workers left the region for jobs in nearby urban centers, and high skill jobs feared expanding to the region for lack of skilled workers. In contrast, the Promise Zone’s highly coordinated, regional effort could provide both in tandem. Now, EKCEP is hoping that infrastructure improvements to broadband will allow residents to take full advantage of internet connectivity for their work, for instance. The group is helping entrepreneurs to promote their business online and training a select group of coal miners to become coders.
It’s tough to measure change in metrics this early (especially since many local programs existed before the initiative and are now simply growing to scale), but the Promise Zone’s backers point to some early progress. In February 2014, unemployment exceeded 15 percent in eight counties of Southeastern Kentucky. But since the Promise Zone’s inception, the rate has plummeted six points, compared to a national drop of just two percentage points. And grant funding from the federal government has done more than just interject a nice flow of cash. It’s also encouraging industries to take a second look at the region. In the next five to seven years, KHIC has identified $189 million coming into the Promise Zone.
Within the eight counties that make up Southeastern Kentucky’s Promise Zone, residents also claim they’re witnessing greater civic participation. The number of official partners has expanded from 12 to 53 during the first year alone — a collaboration that brings to mind levels of engagement not seen since the battles to unionize the mines. And for the first time in recent memory, elections are being contested, campaigns waged between the establishment and reformers. Public meetings overflow with dozens in the audience.
There are still significant challenges to providing social services in a rural area. Unlike urban redevelopment, which can hone in on a few troubled blocks (as the U.S. Department of Education’s Promise Neighborhoods have done successfully), rural revitalization presents the challenge of distance. The Promise Zone in Southeastern Kentucky stretches for 3,071 square miles, one and a half times the size of Delaware. It’s a two-hour drive from end to end, so it’s no surprise that the program’s coordinator, Sandi Curd, a farmer from Whitley County, says she spends most of her days in her red pickup truck.
The rigors of federal grants also create potential problems. Many are designed for dense urban areas, sometimes disqualifying a rural agency from applying. Operation UNITE, the organization fighting prescription drug abuse in the counties where the term “hillbilly heroin” was coined, couldn’t find a small cluster of blocks to target for a Department of Justice grant. “We could not get them to understand the difference between a radius in an urban area that’s 10 city blocks and what that [radius would be] in a rural area. We were turned down because they felt like we were trying to target more than one community, but really it’s that the communities are 10 miles apart,” says Debbie Trusty, Operation UNITE’s education director and a member of the Promise Zone’s health and education committee. “We reapplied after we were established as a Promise Zone and engaged with folks at the Department of Justice prior to applying. We were advised not to apply because they were afraid they weren’t able to establish different parameters.” Stumbling blocks like these have led to significant doubts about whether enough money will come in to make a difference.
The coordinators at KHIC are quick to note that the Promise Zone is not a panacea for the region’s problems. “It’s one more tool in the toolkit,” Rickett says, readily admitting that the numbers don’t add up. “We have identified $189 million coming into the Promise Zone, but when you divide it by five to seven years and by eight counties, that’s less than 100 jobs a county, We lost 4,000 direct coal mining jobs and an estimated three indirect for every direct job,” he adds. “Will the Promise Zone fund revitalization? No, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.”
What’s different this time? Will the Promise Zone work? For Rickett, that’s asking the wrong questions. As he puts it, “It’s the only opportunity we have.”
If this last chance at redevelopment works, some might say the magic’s been in Middlesboro all along. But they’d be wrong. This isolated city in the highlands can’t be fixed by hope or superstition. It will require collaboration from the mountain men whose ancestors first cleared the frontier in search of solitude, and ingenuity from laborers who’ve toiled in the mines. And of course, it will take time.
A region devastated by a century of exploitation can’t expect a mystic transformation. That might be what it looks like when a new coffee shop opens on Main Street, the fish return to a local creek and a new family joins the congregation. But that’s not magic, that’s success.
Part 3: Stories of Redemption in America’s Coal Country