April 10, 2017 Read More →

As Coal Fades, a Nascent Economic-Transition Push in Kentucky

Christian Science Monitor:

In a bid to move the region beyond reliance on either government support or a single uncertain industry, a broad web of local and national foundations, nongovernmental organizations, and civil society groups is trying to resurrect eastern Kentucky and other parts of America’s penurious Coal Belt.

Perhaps more than at any time in the past, the focus is on bootstrap ingenuity – encouraging a more entrepreneurial economy. The goal is not just to pump money into the region, but to help communities like Hindman foster the desire and have the tools to build a new future for themselves, one small business at a time.

“We’ve been waiting for someone to come in and save the day,” says Kelly Hall, innovation director at the school where Martin works, the Knott County Area Technology Center. “But I think the answer lies within.”

The longstanding link to mining here is hard to break. But residents also know that President Trump can’t wish away the forces – mechanization in the mines and competition from abundant natural gas – that have driven coal’s decline. To many, the region simply has no choice but to adapt and diversify.

Towns across a mining region that runs through the ancient folds of the Appalachian Mountains, from Pennsylvania to West Virginia to Tennessee, are beginning to see the opportunities – in fields such as tourism, agriculture, e-commerce, and environmental cleanup.

“There are a lot of different smaller things,” says Jeff Wilder, who heads the tourism office in Harlan County, 60 miles south of Hindman. “I think a lot of people here have decided to use their ingenuity to do other things [than coal].”

Perhaps more important, young residents like Mr. Breeding have one advantage over generations past: They’re growing up without the deep-rooted loyalty to coal mining that their parents and grandparents harbored.

One mistake outsiders make, many here say, is thinking all this is actually about coal. It’s not. It’s more about the life coal provided. Where else could you earn $80,000 a year with a high school education or less?

“Embrace the change or be left behind,” says Jeff Combs of Hazard, Ky., standing outside a bed-and-breakfast on a hill overlooking the community’s nearly vacant downtown. “Be open-minded. Be open-minded to more.” Mr. Combs’s father, a former coal miner, implored him to avoid the mines. It was tough work, dangerous and unhealthy in the long term. Combs’s father was on disability in his 50s.

Environmental advocates say it’s disingenuous to promote policies that curb greenhouse gas emissions and pollution without supporting affected communities. The Sierra Club, for example, is trying to help fashion a new economy.

What really ties the initiatives together, though, is the focus on seeding new businesses and jobs that have been lacking as coal mining has plummeted for several reasons: first, because of mechanization; then because of technological advances that allowed power plants to burn dirtier Midwest coal; and, finally, because of competition from cheaper natural gas, and the costs imposed by former President Barack Obama’s environmental regulations.

“Transitioning is tough,” says Jim Ward, the judge-executive for Letcher County, in which Whitesburg is located. “We’ve just got to figure out how to do it. And we’re just at the beginning of it.”

Mr. Ward hopes expanding broadband internet access will open up telecommuting and e-commerce opportunities. Kentucky Republican Gov. Matt Bevin has made attracting tech jobs one of his biggest economic diversification goals.

Some policymakers are looking at other ways to help. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R) of West Virginia has introduced legislation in Congress to set aside $525 million for a “new market tax credit.” It is intended to spur private investment in distressed former coal communities in Appalachia.

In Kentucky, the state Senate is considering a bill that would put $7.5 million of the annual coal severance tax revenues into a trust fund for economic diversification.

Appalachia’s new trail: finding life after coal

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