Last week, the Hazard Herald published a very interesting editorial, calling for a conversation about the economic future of the region. The questions asked by the Herald's editors are, we think, the exactly right ones to be asking. The answers are — not surprisingly — harder to come by, but until we start to ask these questions calmly, fairly, and publicly the conversation about solutions will be so much harder to have. Great to see media in the heart of Appalachian communities supporting an honest conversation on our shared economic future.
A recent editorial out of Lexington asked an important question for those of us in Eastern Kentucky: What’s next after the coal’s gone?
For decades now Eastern Kentucky has, fort the most part, survived by a steady flow of coal from our mountains. By and large we haven’t bothered to build any other sustainable industries. Sure, we’ve come a long way, and mining coal is a much better and safer vocation than it used to be, but at some point that resource is going to disappear from our mountains.
And what then? Simply put, we don’t know any more than our counterparts in Lexington do.
We have a few officials on both the local and state levels working to transform our mountains into a tourist destination, and there has been some limited success in Harlan and Knott County. Even so, both counties, like the majority of the region, are not being spared the downfalls of the recession.
Adventure tourism has promise, especially if counties can work together to draw people to our region to show them what we have to offer, but even at its full potential it won’t produce the kind of jobs needed to fill the void when our coal finally does run out, or when federal regulation prevents us from mining it all together.
As a region we failed to capitalize on the promise of the Internet, our manufacturing base is lackluster and if current projections hold, here in Perry County we’ll lose a quarter of our population over the next four decades while urban centers like Lexington and Louisville will continue to grow.
Here in Eastern Kentucky we’ve got a lot of promise. We always have. But it will take a concerted effort by more than a few to reverse current trends that show our region is in a state of decline. First, and perhaps most importantly, we have got to get a handle on our ongoing drug problem.
In a close second, we must find something to replace coal. We’re already an energy producing state, and here in this region we should be looking at other ways to capitalize on current energy trends such as biofuels. Mountaintop removal mining has left us with acres of flat land that could be used to grow a variety of flora to achieve that end. We should be taking advantage.
Coal is a political hot button right now, and in this region it’s a popular thing to support for obvious reasons. But at some point we need to look long term, and there’s no better time than now.