Self-made Martin County native controls a huge enterprise centered in Inez

jcheves@herald-leader.comNovember 16, 2013 

INEZ — To the extent that this community has private enterprise, it's mostly James H. Booth.

Booth, 64, made his fortune in coal. Today he employs about 1,400 people in Martin County, from surface miners to gas station clerks, making him boss of 41 percent of the work force.

A hungry visitor to Inez can dine at Miss Ida's Tea Room and rest his head at the Super 8 Motel. To catch up on local news, he can read the website SurfKY.com (Headline: "Jim Booth elected Kentucky Chamber of Commerce chairman"). Fast Lane stores will fuel up his car; Fast Change stores will service it; and Car City will, if necessary, replace it with another.

If the visitor falls in love with Inez and settles here, Realty One Real Estate will sell him a home, Elite Insurance will protect it and R&J Building Supply will help him renovate and decorate. When the end comes, no worry — an upscale cemetery, Riverview Memorial Gardens, is opening soon.

Booth owns all of that, and more.

His business empire reported $750 million in annual revenue in recent years, or 37 times the budget of Martin County Fiscal Court.

Booth has family or business ties to the politicians who run the city of Inez, the county fiscal court and the county school board (and who, between them, employ most of the work force that he does not). He himself is chairman of the county Economic Development Authority and sometimes sells parcels of his own land for county projects. He is a director at the Inez Deposit Bank, which finances much of what gets done around here.

Booth and his wife, Linda, have given at least $955,000 in political donations over the past 15 years, including bucketfuls to Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who in July put him on the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees, and U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who last year praised Booth on the Senate floor as "this treasured citizen of the commonwealth of Kentucky."

When Booth calls Frankfort and Washington, important people reach for their phones.

Ambitious plans

Around Martin County, Booth is spoken of reverently or resentfully, depending on whom you ask.

"I don't know why people get mad about him," said Martin County Judge-Executive Kelly Callaham, a funeral home director.

As one of Booth's business partners in the cemetery venture, Callaham falls into the reverent camp.

"Mr. Booth has spent millions of dollars in our county, and he really didn't have to," Callaham said. "He could have moved to Lexington and built himself up there. We've had a number of people who made a ton of money in Martin County and then went elsewhere. Mr. Booth is about the only one who stayed and invested in this place. What's wrong with that?"

In a recent interview, Booth, an affable, bearded man in work boots, said he has ambitions for his county.

Booth said he is buying and leveling land at strategic locations that he wants to develop. For example, Martin County recently persuaded the state Transportation Cabinet to build an $803,709 bridge over Rockcastle Creek near a tract of land that Booth hopes to turn into a shopping center anchored by a grocery store.

Booth also has bought up many of downtown Inez's empty, decaying storefronts, some of which the county recently bought from him to build a $6.5 million Martin County Government Center with new offices for his friend, the judge-executive, and other officials. Booth got $45,000 for his parcel, having paid $40,000 for it a few years earlier.

Booth's enormous influence over events here echoes the 1953 remark by General Motors chief executive Charles Erwin Wilson when he was testifying to Congress: "For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa." Supporters say what's good for Martin County is good for Jim Booth, and vice versa.

"I intend for Martin County to be in the way someday," Booth said, sketching out his vision. "That is, you'll have to drive through here to get somewhere. I look at places like Beckley, W.Va., which really took off and got development once it got some major roads through it."

Toward that end, the Transportation Cabinet is engaged in a multi-million dollar construction project at the intersection of Ky. 645 and Ky. 40.

That’s part of a larger plan to link Inez to a network of faster four-lane highways between Lawrence County and West Virginia. At present, it’s easy for regional motorists to bypass Martin County, and most choose to.

An unforeseen consequence of the sprawling road project: Boulders blasted off a mountain by work crews damaged 40-year-old Sheldon Clark High School this year and forced the school board to abandon it permanently, moving its students to Inez Middle School. The episode spawned local outrage and lawsuits.

Booth said he's aware that he dominates the economy. He tries to nurture younger entrepreneurs by staking them with capital and giving them practical advice, he said.

"I do wish there was somebody else who had the resources that was willing to pour them back in here like Linda and I have done," he said. "But we're limited here. It's hard for us to support new endeavors because the population is limited and the revenue is limited."

Self-made man

Booth grew up poor near Warfield, a Martin County town of 265 people facing West Virginia across the Tug River.

He worked his way through Morehead State University as a part-time coal miner. During the 1970s, Booth and two other men launched their own contract mining company.

Surfing the wave of the late-1970s coal boom, he was earning more than $1 million a year by his 28th birthday (and, he hastens to add, paying most of it to Uncle Sam, thanks to that era's 70 percent federal tax rate for top incomes).

As the coal boom fizzled in the 1980s, Booth diversified his business holdings, first with building supplies, then convenience stores, then homes, eventually branching out into nearly everything.

Now the chief executive of Booth Energy Group, a conglomerate of coal companies, Booth said he expects to mine three million tons this year in Martin County and roughly the same at his mines in Pike County and West Virginia.

Although his total production is down two million tons annually, his companies pre-sold enough to get through much of 2014 "in a fairly stable manner" while others are closing Central Appalachian mines, he said. He said his job is made more difficult by excessive environmental and worker-safety enforcement by President Barack Obama's administration.

"When we say there's a war on coal, we're sincere," Booth said.

Over the past three years, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has proposed tens of thousands of dollars in fines for violations it cited at mines controlled by Booth. His companies have paid only a small fraction of that thus far, appealing many of the citations.

Inez miner Robert Cook was crushed to death by equipment at one of Booth's mines in March 2011. MSHA investigators wrote: "The mine operator's administrative controls, training and policies in place at the time of the accident were not adequate to prevent the practice of operating continuous-mining machines from an unsafe location."

Although he has done incredibly well for himself, Booth waxes nostalgic for his 1950s boyhood.

Warfield was a hardscrabble town, but there were plenty of entrepreneurs — shop owners, tradesmen and professionals — who kept the place bustling, he said. Men worked. You worked or you went hungry. Fifty years after the government intervened with its War on Poverty and a flood of welfare spending, that's no longer true, he said.

Booth said he would prefer that the government give help on a temporary basis, with fewer handouts to the permanently idle.

"There have been times when it's been difficult for me to build a work force," Booth said. "My biggest competitor has been the United States government. It is too easy for people to not be in the work force. They can get a living wage — well, a survivable wage might be more accurate — just by depending on the government. We're making it too easy."

John Cheves: (859) 231-3266. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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