There are a lot of ideas on the drawing board or in the works to help diversify the economy of Eastern Kentucky in the wake of a crash in coal jobs, including a drone-testing facility, a large solar-power array, a wildlife center and a factory to make high-tech batteries.
Some people want to add casino gambling to the list.
Supporters are pushing the idea of building a casino on Pine Mountain high above the historic coal town of Jenkins as a way to create jobs.
The concept of the Raven Rock Lodge and Resort includes a150,000-square-foot casino and 300-room hotel.
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The development is named for a rocky point overlooking the city near U.S. 23 and the Kentucky — Virginia border.
Jenkins Mayor Todd DePriest said the need for more jobs in the area is evident.
“We’re standing here bleeding,” said DePriest, who sold mining equipment until the downturn in coal wiped out his job.
In the third quarter of 2011, there were 14,301 coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky, but that number dropped to 3,896 in the third quarter of this year, according to the state Energy and Environment Cabinet.
In Letcher County, where the Consolidation Coal Company built Jenkins in 1911 as a wholly-owned company town, employment in the coal industry dropped from 583 in 2012 to 48 in the third quarter of this year.
The collapse has hurt businesses, sapped tax revenue for cities, counties and schools and forced families to move away for work.
Jenkins is withering away. The population dropped from 2,401 in 2000 to 2,203 in 2010 to an estimated 2,070 in mid-2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The city has cut its workforce and there’s little money for projects such as paving streets. The police department waits 12,000 miles between oil changes on its cars instead of 3,000, DePriest said.
“We need something to offset all that,” DePriest said. “We’ve got to make a play on getting people to come to the mountains.”
DePriest and other supporters believe a casino would attract tourists from other areas and create hundreds of jobs in the process.
The idea for the Raven Rock development includes an adventure park with attractions such as mountain-bike trails and ziplines.
“What we want to do is make this a total family destination,” said James Hibbitts, who has a background in banking and is one of the partners in the casino initiative.
Another partner has experience at a casino in North Carolina.
The facility is part of a larger pitch supporters are making for other casinos around the state aimed at recapturing money that Kentuckians spend at gambling venues in other states, including boats on the Ohio River.
Every state bordering Kentucky has casino gambling except Virginia and Tennessee, Hibbitts said.
“We’re losing revenue across those borders,” said Hibbitts.
Supporters have been working for more than a year to boost the idea of casinos at Jenkins and elsewhe
Backers had a display at the 2017 meeting of the Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR, initiative, which was created to try to boost employment in the region, and have lobbied legislators for support.
People around Jenkins have signed petitions supporting a vote on legalizing casinos. The petitions say the city “built by coal over 100 years ago remains in a fight for economic survival . . . .”
The goal is for the legislature to approve a measure allowing Kentuckians to vote on an amendment to the state constitution legalizing casinos in 2018, said Gary Stratton, who teaches at Kentucky State University and is a partner Raven Rock Entertainment LLC.
The idea could face long odds.
There is a history of unsuccessful efforts to get approval for casinos in Kentucky at horse-racing tracks and elsewhere going back many years.
Factors such as disagreements over where casinos would be allowed and opposition to expanded gambling by social conservatives scuttled the efforts.
The state’s influential horse industry would oppose having casinos at locations other than tracks.
The board of the Kentucky Equine Education Project, an industry lobbying group, voted in December 2014 to not support legislation allowing casino gambling in Kentucky, according to a resolution provided by Joe Clabes, the executive director.
The concern is that casinos at other locations would compete with the tracks for gambling dollars.
State Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said he does not favor allowing casinos in Kentucky and sees little chance the legislature will approve a casino measure in 2018.
And Republican Gov. Matt Bevin has said casino gambling is not going to happen in Kentucky.
Bevin told WHAS radio that the societal cost of casino gambling “is not proven to work for states that have done it.”
But supporters hope the state’s crisis in funding for public-employee pensions will help drive support for proposals to legalize casinos and use the state’s share of the proceeds to shore up pensions.
The state’s major pension systems have a total unfunded liability of more than $41 billion.
Fixing that problem without new revenue would require painful cuts in state programs, which has some legislators looking at casinos as a potential source of additional state funding.
“I do believe it’s got a chance because of the time we’re in,” Hibbitts said.
State Reps. Rick Rand and Dennis Keene, both Democrats, have filed legislation that would allow voters to decide whether to legalize casinos by constitutional amendment, and state Sen. Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville, said he plans to file a casino bill with Rep. Jerry Miller, a Louisville Republican.
The bill would allow voters to decide on a constitutional amendment legalizing casinos, with all the state’s share of the money dedicated to paying pension costs for 20 years if it passes, McGarvey said.
“Let’s recapture some of the money that’s leaving the state,” McGarvey said.
A 2012 study projected that allowing casinos at eight Kentucky horse tracks would generate $464 million for the state the first full year of operation.
The figure could be smaller now because competition for gambling dollars has increased.
However, no one estimates casinos in Kentucky would bring in less than $100 million for the state, McGarvey said.
Even if Kentucky voters legalize casinos, there is no guarantee the proposed Jenkins resort would win a license under provisions the state would set up to govern the facilities.
But supporters of the Raven Rock proposal think no place in the state could demonstrate a greater need or offer a more attractive location.
“This place is unique, like no other,” Hibbitts said.