Harry Caudill wrote Night Comes to the Cumberlands before the coal boom of the 1970s and '80s, before the Appalachian Regional Commission built its road network, before the revolutionary consolidation of the coal industry and before the prescription drug epidemic of the last 20 years.
Even Harry might not have imagined the near total collapse of the region's signature industry. Had one forecast a day with only a single mine loading coal in Harlan County, I doubt that he could have conceived it, but that day is here.
In the mid-'60s, like many college students, I had my first conversations with Harry. In the ensuing years, my wife, Sissy, and I spent much of our time seeking solutions.
After 50 years, I have little new to suggest. However, seeing the desolation day in and out, I put forth this proposal: Create a tax-free economic development zone for all new or expanding manufacturing industry that locates in a more accurately defined geographic area — not the ARC's definition stretching from the Poconos to the Delta, but the hard-core problem area between Whitley and Martin counties.
The Kennedy administration did this with the pharmaceutical industry in Puerto Rico in the early '60s, and it worked.
We have in place a modern heavy-rail and adequate highway network and, as every fiscal court member knows, a plethora of industrial parks sitting idle.
Couple this industrial tax incentive with a partnership among government, foundations, investment bankers and venture capitalists to recruit industries to manufacture products produced by employees able and eager to forge, craft, weld and assemble heavy goods such as automobiles, trucks, construction equipment, railroad rolling stock and locomotives, to cite a few.
These are skill sets workers in the mountains possess (learned and honed in the mines as well as in ancillary support industries) that will allow them to take pride in producing a quality product that merits a modern day living wage.
Any experienced coal executive will confirm that the most productive and hard-working employee in America is an Appalachian coal miner.
Our people want an opportunity to work at a good job that will help us work our way out of this economic mire.
Gov. Martha Layne Collins validated the potential for a return on this sort of partnership when she risked her legacy on Toyota. We all know the outstanding results and how far its tentacles reach.
Finally, if there is any validity to this idea, couple it with the "watershed approach" of, for example, WYMT, which organizes its news bureaus along natural geographic lines. Recognize that Eastern Kentucky has three distinct watersheds: the Cumberland, the Kentucky and the Big Sandy. Rather than a singular county approach to resolving our issues, formulate a regional approach for each of the three watersheds that overlaps the counties within.
This will require overcoming turf battles and egos to focus upon what our people need to survive and prosper. Hope, promise and adequate financing can surmount these historic barriers.
I imagine Harry would like to see us try something like this. Perhaps, dawn will break on the Cumberlands.