Why are Kentucky’s Western coal counties doing better than Appalachia?

This question was the topic of a nice article on the Hazard Herald's website today. Western Kentucky's coal counties have seen declines in their unemployment rates, while eastern Kentucky's unemployment rates have only been increasing. While there are several factors involved (including the fact that Illinois Basin coal is cheaper and in higher demand), one major reason is that Western Kentucky's counties have a more diversified economy. According to the article,

When comparing employment trends in the eastern and western parts of the state, in some of the western coal counties, the coal industry has not remained the largest private employer over the years. In Hopkins County in 2010, which are the latest figures available from the state, four other private employment sectors offered more jobs than mining, including manufacturing, retail and health care….

In Henderson County, where in 2009 just over 3.1 million tons of coal were produced (Leslie County produced about 3.6 million by comparison), that diversification began about two decades ago when the coal industry there suffered a bit of a downturn, noted Brad Schneider, president of the Henderson Chamber of Commerce.
 
“There was a concerted effort to pursue other types of businesses, especially industrial, and we had some success,” Schneider said.

In other words, when Henderson County's coal  industry drooped, officials were proactive in diversifying their economy. Important lessons for Eastern Kentucky and other Central Applachian coal counties, but one that is being learned the hard way right now. The article also quotes MACED's own Jason Bailey about the importance of this conversation.
“It’s really important that we have a public conversation about the economic future of the region, particularly now given what’s going on with coal,” Bailey said. “There doesn’t seem to be that conversation happening.”
 
There is no silver bullet that will replace the hundreds of coal jobs lost in the past few months, Bailey continued, but there is an opportunity to develop different strategies that could help further diversify the local economy.
Health care, tourism and entrepreneurship are all called out as opportunities, but the strategies have to happen first. In this election season, will our politicians, candidates and leaders be willing to ask the hard questions and continue the conversation?