Epilogue: Growing crisis spawns another effort to remake Eastern Kentucky

bestep@herald-leader.comApril 26, 2014 

  • 50 Years of Night

    A yearlong look at Eastern Kentucky since 1963, when a country lawyer's book riveted the nation's attention on the region and its struggles

When President Lyndon B. Johnson came to Eastern Kentucky on April 24, 1964, to promote an ambitious attack on poverty, he made clear what he hoped the nation would accomplish.

"I have called for a national war on poverty," Johnson said after talking with an unemployed former coal miner about the struggle to provide for his family. "Our objective: total victory."

Fifty years on, the abject deprivation of the 1960s is gone, but a growing economic crisis has spawned another effort to devise a better future for Eastern Kentucky.

More than 40 percent of the region's coal jobs had bled away in just two years before the cool, rainy day in October 2013 when Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers announced an effort to come up with ideas for resuscitating the region's battered economy.

Beshear, a Democrat, and Rogers, a Republican, called the initiative Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR. At a news conference with dozens of political, business and education leaders, Rogers noted what was at stake.

"With the difficulties in the coal industry these days, a lot of people are despairing," he said. "The battle for our neighbors is putting food on the table and heating the house this winter."

Whitesburg attorney Harry M. Caudill struck much the same tone five decades earlier in Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area, his lament on Eastern Kentucky's road to endemic poverty.

Mechanization and market changes had wiped out more than a third of the coal jobs in the years before Caudill's book was published in 1963, causing a mass exodus of people who could no longer eke out a living. The poverty rate among those who stayed topped 70 percent in some places. Many families subsisted on food giveaways.

"In community after community one can visit a dozen houses in a row without finding a single man who is employed," Caudill wrote.

Uneven gains

SOAR is the successor to many plans, proposals and efforts since the 1960s aimed at trying to improve the economy of the region. The plans bore fruit in some cases, but many of the proposals withered on the vine for want of money or other issues.

Caudill's plan to revive the region was breathtaking in scope.

He called for improving schools and highways, consolidating counties to break up venal local officials' fiefdoms, reforming the court system and abolishing surface mining on the region's steep slopes to stop environmental damage. He also proposed relocating people from far-flung hollows into towns where it was easier to provide services, then having the federal government take over at least half the land, preserving vast swaths as forest and damming rivers to make lakes that could provide water for industry and boost tourism.

"It is my conviction that the plateau — if its future is not aborted by present rapacity — is destined to become a major recreation area for the nation's teeming millions," Caudill wrote.

Johnson's declaration of war on poverty came a few months later.

That same year, Congress crafted legislation that created the Appalachian Regional Commission to boost development. Appalachia's historic lack of economic diversity, the law said, "has failed to provide the economic base that is a vital prerequisite for vigorous, self-sustaining growth."

The anti-poverty programs put in place in the 1960s and subsequent federal, state and local spending for infrastructure, development and education helped transform the region. The poverty rate in Appalachian Kentucky is less than half what it was in the 1960s, averaging 25.1 percent from 2008 through 2012, the most recent data reported by the ARC.

Still, the gains have been uneven.

The average poverty rate throughout the 13-state Appalachian region from 2008 through 2012 was only 1.7 percent higher than the national level, but it was 10.2 percent higher in Appalachian Kentucky, and more than 20 percent higher in some of its counties, according to U.S. Census figures.

Eastern Kentucky has Appalachia's biggest remaining cluster of what the ARC calls "distressed counties," which have higher unemployment and poverty rates and lower per capita market income.

Revolution sputters

The last major effort to invigorate Eastern Kentucky was more than a decade ago, when the Kentucky Appalachian Commission held meetings throughout the region that resulted in an October 2003 report called "New Appalachian Horizons."

The ideas in the self-described "spectacular road map to a bright future" for the region included a light rail system; term limits and required training for public officials; a pilot program for national health insurance; a higher minimum wage; and abolition of mountaintop mining.

"Within these pages you will find nothing less than the second wave of the Appalachian revolution," the report declared.

The revolution sputtered.

Gov. Paul Patton, a Democrat from Eastern Kentucky, had been a hands-on participant in the Kentucky Appalachian Commission. His successor, Republican Ernie Fletcher, eliminated its funding and the legislature didn't replace it. The commission's final road map brought few results.

The lack of long-term investment in a comprehensive, regionwide development plan is one reason there has not been more progress in Eastern Kentucky, advocates believe.

"One of the challenges we've had is a lack of sustained effort to develop the region according to a plan," said Ewell Balltrip, who headed the Kentucky Appalachian Commission before it was abolished in 2004.

Appalachian historian Ron Eller has argued that too often in the past, development strategies for Eastern Kentucky "relied upon strategies that were narrow, outdated or served private/political interests."

Government and private initiatives also have been short-lived, and many addressed symptoms rather than the sources of problems, Eller wrote in 2013.

"Little has been done in the mountains to tackle issues of land ownership and use, environmental health, responsible governance, income inequality and political corruption," Eller wrote.

'A sense of ownership'

Many hope the SOAR initiative will finally create a comprehensive, lasting effort to expand the region's economy.

The initiative started with an unprecedented summit meeting in December 2013. An estimated 1,500 to 1,700 people attended the daylong event in Pikeville, submitting hundreds of ideas to improve the economy and quality of life in the region.

Since then, the legislature approved $400,000 to help finance the initiative, and Beshear and Rogers named an executive committee to guide it and hire a permanent director.

They also announced committees that will hold a series of public meetings over the next few months to gather more ideas, then recommend development strategies. The committees held their first meetings Thursday.

Many of the ideas and themes were not new, such as calls for better transportation, development of tourism and cultural offerings, improved high-speed broadband service, more help for entrepreneurs and better regional collaboration.

There is a sense that the effort is different from previous attempts to drive progress, however.

One reason is the bipartisan collaboration between Beshear, Rogers, leading state lawmakers and local officials. Another is the urgency driven by mass coal layoffs.

Some are skeptical the initiative will accomplish much, but W. Bruce Ayers, who retired in 2013 after more than 27 years as president of Southeast Community & Technical College in Harlan County, said it seems more people have bought into the hope that SOAR will bring progress.

"I do see a sense of ownership," he said. "I really am more encouraged by this initiative than I have been by anything in years."

People who attended the December summit expressed concern that the same rivalries and political battles that have long hindered the region will ultimately torpedo the SOAR initiative, but were also willing "to suspend disbelief one more time, and commit, in the hope this will succeed," according to a report on the event by the Rural Policy Research Institute.

Beshear and Rogers have said they are determined not to let the initiative dwindle into a tepid effort that produces yet another report to file away.

With hundreds of development ideas in the mix, some participants say the biggest need in the infancy of SOAR is a process to figure out which have the most promise and to mold them into a cohesive plan, with a way to guide that strategy over the long haul.

"We have to make sure we're creating a permanent structure that's going to be able to manage and advance economic development in the region no matter who's the congressman or who's in the governor's mansion," said Justin Maxson, president of the Mountain Association of Community Economic Development.

'Time will tell'

There is a growing awareness that the coal industry probably won't ever again provide as many jobs in Eastern Kentucky as it did just a few years ago, a reality that is making people increasingly willing to consider a range of possibilities for transforming the region's economy, said Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg.

"The conversation is changing. I don't hear people seriously talking about coal jobs coming back. I do hear people talking about diversifying the economy," Davis said. "People realize if we've got any chance at all, we've got to seize the reins."

How to fund that effort, however, remains a big question. No one expects new spending similar to what flowed from the original war on poverty in the late 1960s.

People who have taken part in the latest initiative believe there will be adequate money from federal and state government, the private sector and philanthropies to support real progress if the spending is managed well.

"Money's going to come in in so many different ways. What we need is that coordination and a smart plan," Maxson said.

Already, there have been some avenues for aid identified.

In January, for instance, President Barack Obama announced eight Appalachian Kentucky counties had been designated as one of the initial federal Promise Zones, giving them priority status in competing for money for housing, education, public safety and other needs.

The same month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture added Eastern Kentucky's coal counties to a program that targets aid to areas of poverty and lack of opportunity.

At Beshear's request, the legislature this year approved the first $123 million of a $750 million project to upgrade the Mountain Parkway, a key route through the region, as well as $30 million to improve high-speed Internet service in the state, starting in Eastern Kentucky.

The plan calls for matching that money with a total of $40 million in federal and private funding.

Beshear said Thursday that the state recently issued a request to gauge vendors' interest in the project, which officials said could be a significant economic aid.

"I see a chance for us to re-think ourselves, redesign ourselves" with the initiative, Rogers said Friday. "I sense this is our chance."

Harry Caudill's widow, Anne, said she thinks Caudill would have welcomed the SOAR initiative as a chance for progress. He would have liked the fact that so many people took part in the December summit, and that the coal industry didn't hijack the discussion, she said.

"I think he would have found it very hopeful," she said.

As for what the initiative might accomplish, Anne Caudill relies on a phrase her late husband often uttered.

"Harry's constant expression was, 'Time will tell. Time will tell.'"

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1

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