Bridging the Opportunity Divide

Stories of Redemption in America’s Coal Country

June 12, 2015
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Stories of Redemption in America’s Coal Country
Abandoned coal structures are seen in Lynch, Ky., April 16, 2012 . The historic coal mining town in the Appalachian Mountains once boasted a population of more than 10,000, that has now dwindled to around 820. Mario Tama/Getty Images
In our third piece about Appalachia, we look at how areas outside of Kentucky's Promise Zone are getting back on their feet.

How much money must pour into Central Appalachia before locals will see any substantial change? The Promise Zone has already lined up $189 million, but insiders say that’s a drop in the bucket.

“Before the downturn of the coal industry, in which we lost nearly 8,000 mining jobs in the region, we were already a distressed area,” says Jeff Whitehead, executive director of Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, a workforce development agency. “It’s more than just reviving an economy, it’s trying to diversify an economy that was in tough shape before this crisis.”

Not all of the hard-hit counties in Central Appalachia are part of the Promise Zone, so those that are excluded have to pursue their own economic diversification and mine restoration strategies. But as with the rest of the Promise Zone’s work, economic diversification must clear additional hurdles inherent to rural areas. And since these areas may not have the cash (or cachet) of being part of a federally recognized program, these counties must shoulder the burden of their own redevelopment.
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“We’re not in a metropolitan area where we can identify other sectors and other kinds of employment that are growing as the economy rebounds, where you can transfer over to this profession or that profession,” Whitehead adds. “This isn’t a real quick fix. There’s a level of frustration in the region because we see the dire straits that so many people are in.”

Here are three counties just outside of Southeastern Kentucky who aren’t waiting for the federal government’s assistance to create economic diversity.

For years, Knott County, Ky. — adjacent to the Promise Zone — tried to capitalize on its isolated, “backwoods” qualities to appeal to tourists wanting a rustic getaway. Its county seat, Hindman, a coal town with a population of 777, had the folksy feel, but it lacked the necessary infrastructure. As a result, an $11.8 million, state-funded plan launched by Gov. Paul Patton in 1997 aimed at generating “arts and smarts” in Hindman never resulted in the exhibitions, classes and shopping that bureaucrats envisioned — even after the investment doubled to more than $25.2 million by 2003.

“I got a call last week from a woman who asked me, ‘How do I get to you from Interstate 75?’” Corbett Mullins, former mayor of Hindman and director of the Appalachian Arts Center, told the Lexington Herald-Leader two years ago. “I paused and I said, ‘Are you sure you want to come here? To the Appalachian Artisan Center? In Hindman? Because we’re a couple of hours away from the interstate.’ And she said, ‘Oh, no, I’m sorry, I meant the Kentucky Artisan Center in Berea.’ ‘That’s what I thought,’ I told her.”

Now, though, a public-private partnership is thinking regionally. Beyond a center for the arts downtown, it’s defining how to create a culture of artists that will attract visitors, part of which involves creating demand. Recreation is an early part of it, with hundreds of miles of trails in the reclaimed hillsides through the Mine Made Paradise Park, a draw that will boost sales at local shops and could even bring a hotel to town.

With hope renewed in Hindman, the initial $5 million that built the Kentucky School of Craft may prove worth the expense. The facility nearly closed down in 2012 when two instructors resigned, unwilling to spend another year in Knott County. A sculptor, Michael Flynn, has taken over and promises to expand offerings in digital media. “We are in the heart of Appalachia. When you look out our windows or walk around our campus, you are surrounded by nature, the foothills, the flow of Troublesome Creek, and wildlife right at our doorstep. The Kentucky School of Craft is iconic Eastern Kentucky, and I believe our success lies in a grassroots movement that starts with those native to the region that treasure the uniqueness of Appalachia,” Flynn says. It’s why as it “expand[s] to become a nationally recognized art organization,” Flynn won’t just be promoting their arts, he’ll be hooking artists on the unique mountain culture as well.

Upshur County, W. Va., also realized that businesses couldn’t thrive without demand, so community leaders focused on finding active buyers. Within the county, taking the word “grassroots” literally, they generated a self-sustaining local food system centered around a farmer’s market in Buckhannon. State officials point to statistics showing the boom in West Virginia agriculture: Last year, there were nearly 180 farmers markets, up from 16 in 2002. Sales at the stands accounted for nearly $4 million in 2012; that number more than doubled last year to $9 million, according to the farmers market association’s figures.

Additionally, businesses in the same industry also collaborated on marketing to generate more buyers, as the Hardwood Alliance Zone did for value-added timber products. Today, forestry and logging only accounts for 49 jobs in the county (at an average weekly wage of $568), while wood product manufacturing accounts for 483 jobs (at a higher average salary of $745).
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The city of Bristol in Washington County, Va., is located on prime real estate between two interstate exchanges. While counties deeper into rugged Appalachia concentrate on drawing tourists, this area is drafting a business plan to sell retail to those passing through, the centerpieces of which are the Believe in Bristol program to revive Main Street and construction of The Falls, a huge retail destination that could generate up to 2,000 jobs. Construction began in January on Cabela’s Outfitters, the 80,000-square-foot anchor tenant. Up next? Lowe’s Home Improvement, Smoky Mountain Brewery, Calhoun’s, Zaxby’s and Sheetz. “It’s really exciting to see walls going up and know that this fall we’ll see…more job opportunities and revenues for our city,” Mayor Catherine Brillhart tells the Bristol Herald Courier. Downtown, more retail shops, a planned hotel and the recently opened Birthplace of Country Music Museum have generated so much business that the city’s now looking at places to build a parking garage to control the overflow.

Retail development and investment in infrastructure brings hope, but it can’t fully erase the struggles that Appalachia’s citizens have endured. “It’s about solutions. [But] That doesn’t preclude me from knowing I have a sister and brother who are suffering, that I have the shortest life expectancy in the United States because I happen to be a woman in Perry County,” says Gerry Roll, executive director of the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, a local community foundation in Perry County, Ky. “I am going to fight my way out of it so that it’s not a reality when my grandchildren are my age.”

READ MORE:

Part 1: Poverty Is a Way of Life in Appalachia. But This State Proves That It Doesn’t Have to Be
Part 2: Inside The Big Plan to Get One Appalachian Community Back on Track
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