E.Ky. leaders “thinking outside the box” about economic development

Last week, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported that Bell County is turned a major goose egg of a county-owned property into what county officials hope will become a golden faberge version of its former self:

A large industrial park in Bell County that never attracted a factory will be repurposed as the site of a wildlife center that could be a key tourism attraction, according to local officials.

The Pine Mountain Regional Industrial Development Authority has agreed to sell 750 acres to the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation for $750,000, said Mike Bowling, a Middlesboro attorney who chairs the authority.

The foundation plans to develop a campus that would include a conservation center with natural history and taxidermy displays, a theater, a local artisan market, research and conference space, and an astronomy pavilion, according to its website.

The county intended the site to become a massive industrial park, complete with recruited factory businesses and the promise of hundreds of jobs. The land was former surface-mined land, and a multi-million dollar bridge was build from U.S. 119 to the site. Since there was nothing on the other side of the bridge for so long, locals dubbed it “the bridge to nowhere.”
But now, county officials hope the wildlife center will attract hundreds of thousands of visitors in just a few years, which would bring thousands of dollars into the region.
The Herald-Leader is quick to point out that “the decision to use the site for tourism instead of industry reflects the difficulty some Eastern Kentucky counties have had attracting manufacturing jobs.” And Mike Bowling, who chairs the Pine Mountain Regional Industrial Development Authority, says that before the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) Initiative was created, people would have still been focussed primarily on industrial recruitment as the major regional economic development strategy. Now that SOAR is changing the way people in the region talk about economic development, people in the region are “thinking outside the box” of what is possible in eastern Kentucky.
This is a much welcome development in the thinking of eastern Kentucky leaders, given that for too long, industrial recruitment was portrayed as the savior of our economy. This narrative has since been proven a misnomer, as several companies moved into the region on the wings of major tax breaks, then left as soon as those tax breaks dried up (Also of note: these companies often paid eastern Kentucky workers far less comparatively than their workers at other locations throughout the country for doing the same type of work).
It is very heartening and encouraging to now see our leaders understanding that while industrial recruitment can still be a strategy to development in the region, it is a far more successful route to invest in our local assets, like our natural environment, which can often be minimally modified for tourism purposes.
Good on Bell County for taking the lead in their neck of the mountains with the development of this new wildlife center. We hope it will bring many a tourist and many a dollar into the county and the region.