Eastern Kentucky has the potential to develop into a bigger regional tourism destination, helping boost an economy sapped by the loss of coal jobs, according to a study commissioned by an arm of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
Taking advantage of that potential will take significant private and public investment and a good deal of time, the study said. But with the right mix of activities, it's possible to create a "modern, well-planned Gatlinburg" in Eastern Kentucky, the report said.
The chamber released the study Wednesday, two days after state and federal leaders announced a December summit aimed at generating ideas to diversify the crippled economy of Eastern Kentucky.
The region has lost 6,000 coal jobs in the last two years as production dropped because of competition from cheap natural gas and other coal basins, relatively high mining costs, tougher environmental rules and other factors.
Efforts to increase tourism are likely to be among the recommendations that come from the summit, called SOAR, for Shaping Our Appalachian Region.
"I think everyone knows and sees the urgency of this thing," said Luther Deaton, president and CEO of Central Bank and Trust company.
Deaton and Jim Booth, president of Booth Energy, a coal company, are past presidents of the state chamber and took part in a conference call with reporters about the tourism study. Both men also are on the committee that Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers and Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, set up to guide the summit.
The region has not concentrated on diversifying beyond coal in the past, but the downturn has sharpened the focus on doing so now, Booth said.
"I think that it's time we can do something to diversify the economy of Eastern Kentucky," Booth said.
The Kentucky Chamber Foundation, the charitable arm of the state business group, commissioned the tourism study by AECOM, a Chicago consulting firm.
The goal was not to come up with a specific plan to develop tourism in the region, but rather to look at travel trends, give examples of how other places developed — such as Gatlinburg, Tenn., and Branson, Mo. — and assess the potential for Eastern Kentucky.
The firm studied the area bounded by Interstates 75 and 64, leaving out Lexington.
Tourism spending in the region totaled $690 million in 2012 — an increase of 3.9 percent from 2012, and about 9 percent of the state total, the study found.
The region is well-positioned to increase that amount, the study said, listing assets that include its natural beauty; a rich culture and history; lots of opportunities for outdoor recreation; and its network of state parks, some with amenities such as golf courses, lodges and campgrounds.
One travel trend is that many Americans are spending less time on vacations and taking shorter trips closer to home — a potential opportunity for Eastern Kentucky to become a destination for travelers from nearby states.
There also are some challenges to boosting tourism in the region.
For instance, the lodges, conference centers and restaurants at the state parks need maintenance, and the hotel inventory in the region is not diverse, meaning there are no luxury or "upper upscale" hotels, the report said.
The report noted that it's legal to sell alcohol in most of the U.S., but many counties in Eastern Kentucky are dry or have limited sales. Travelers assume they'll be able to have alcohol with a meal, and, perhaps more importantly, when planners look for destinations for conventions and groups, the availability of alcohol factors in, the study said.
"Dry counties are overlooked," the report said.
High-speed Internet is another problem. It's an essential amenity for modern travelers.
There has been improvement in broadband access in Kentucky, but the state ranked 40th in the nation in a 2012 federal study based on the percentage of residents with access to high-speed or broadband Internet, the tourism study said.
Rogers is working on the issue of broadband as part of the effort to come up with a comprehensive development plan for Eastern Kentucky, Booth said.
There also is a need for better highway access if the region is to attract more visitors, Deaton said. He mentioned widening all of the Mountain Parkway to four lanes, for instance.
"Nobody's going to go anywhere if they can't get there easy and fast," he said.
Environmental activists have long complained that removing mountaintops during mining runs counter to preserving the beauty and environmental integrity of the region — and therefore to tourism — though advocates say mining has created spaces for elk habitat and activities such as riding horses and all-terrain vehicles.
The study did not address the issue.
The study found that there is a wide variety of attractions in Eastern Kentucky, but the region lacks a "critical mass" of visitor activities.
"To create a tourism destination in Eastern Kentucky, such as a modern, well-planned Gatlinburg, a diverse mix of activities will be required," the study said. "For example, a destination that features gorgeous scenery, bluegrass music, Kentucky bourbon, local arts and crafts and multiple outdoor recreation, shopping and dining options could be very popular among visitors from Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia, as well as Kentucky."
There is potential to develop something akin to Gatlinburg in Eastern Kentucky, the study concluded, noting that outdoor recreation tied to mountains and lakes was the springboard for increased tourism at that popular destination adjacent to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and at Branson.
The study recommended some next steps, including looking at public-private partnerships to develop the state parks; promoting the use of state economic incentives to support private development; and training workers for hospitality jobs.
Greater leeway for public-private partnerships will be a key legislative issue for the chamber, said Dave Adkisson, the president.
The study also said there should be a feasibility study and master plan for projects before any significant spending.
Booth said one goal of the study is to generate interest from entrepreneurs in developing tourism projects.
The state parks will likely be the first focus of an effort to generate private investment. One idea would be to privatize an entire state park, for instance, Booth said.
"We're looking at doing this on a large scale," he said.
Help Eastern Kentucky SOAR
To register for SOAR, the Dec. 9 planning summit in Pikeville, go to https://kydlgweb.ky.gov/
Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.