I was born and raised in Eastern Kentucky, the daughter of a coal miner. My childhood in Lynch was filled with precious family memories centered in a vibrant, multi-racial community where jobs were plentiful and the outlook for future growth and development promising. All that began to change as I grew into adulthood; the certainty of my youth was replaced by a lingering doubt about the future of coal mining, the dominant industry, and the opportunities it would provide.
It was then that the out-migration accelerated, not necessarily because mines were closing or cutting back the work week (although that often happened) but primarily because mining, once a labor intensive industry, became highly mechanized. Lynch's population plummeted from over 12,000 in the 1920s and 1930s to just over 1,000 by the 1990s. I say all this to make the point that we have known for some time that coal jobs were disappearing and that we needed to expand our economy if Eastern Kentucky was to remain viable. Why we didn't take steps to do that very thing is as complex and puzzling as the region itself.
What we must do now is play catch-up; we must be prepared to accept that just as the present economic downturn was a long time coming, so will our climb back up be. The first step is to do a regional inventory. What are our assets and resources that can be built upon?
The most important resource is our people. While a majority of our people have the knowledge, skills and work ethic that would be sought out by business and industry anywhere, there are some among us who, primarily because of a substandard education, would not be attractive to employers. Thus, we must redouble our efforts to ensure that all of our people, regardless of their ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, economic or social status, receive a top flight, world-class education.
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Our people love this area, they want to stay here, raise their families here, and, as I have heard said on more than one occasion, be buried here among the hills and hollows. Given this desire to build their lives here, what if we could say to employers: "You will not find a better educated or better prepared work force anywhere in the country andyou can count on their being here for the rest of their lives." What a powerful selling point for our region.
Eastern Kentucky has many other resources and assets that can be built upon, and each of them will require strategies for development so that they can be fully realized; however, as long as we lag behind the rest of the state and nation in education, the chances of our making economic building blocks of them is almost nil. Education is the key, the key to unlocking our most important resource, our people.