By Erin Young
The focus of the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) Conference was to look at diversifying the economy in Eastern Kentucky. Leadership in the region is struggling to strengthen the economy, improve health and education, and help with the fight against drug abuse.
The willingness of Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers to work with local leadership generates hope.
While communities search for examples and best prac tices to move beyond acknowledgement of the current crisis, the Tourism, Arts & Heritage Cabinet's agencies are helping towns to become tourist destinations.
Several years ago, Beshear and first lady Jane Beshear challenged the Tourism Cabinet and others to create adventure destinations in Kentucky. That process became the Kentucky Trail Town Program.
It involves numerous state cabinets, agencies, state organizations and partnerships with universities such as Eastern Kentucky University, all bearing resources and assistance to the smallest of towns.
The key to becoming a Kentucky Trail Town involves bringing the trail into town and providing the needed services and products that tourists require. The program helps communities capitalize on their economic potential from outdoor recreational resources, arts, music, history and culture.
As many as 18 communities in Kentucky's Appalachian region are pursuing trail-town destinations. This program brings many benefits. One in particular is helping the community become healthier. With access to these trails, people are more willing to exercise, get outside and be active.
One demonstration of this is a bike shop in Prestonsburg that experienced a 400 percent rise in sales after the Dawkins Line Rail Trail (18 of 36 miles) opened last year near Paintsville.
The goal is to have trail towns that are healthy, friendly and alluring communities with great trail adventures that can be accessed in town. Couple that with shops that carry local art and crafts, music, and farm products, and visitors can really experience a taste of Kentucky.
Dawson Springs and Livingston were the first to complete development plans and are now certified Kentucky Trail Towns. Dawson Springs serves the Pennyrile area and the Tradewater River, and Livingston serves Kentucky's longest trail (more than 250 miles), the Sheltowee Trace; the Rockcastle River; and great bike trails in and about the Daniel Boone National Forest.
Both towns have seen local people open businesses (bike shops, canoe, kayak, horseback, fishing and hunting-guide services) because no one knows a community better than someone who has grown up there.
Livingston residents are friendly, knowledgeable, and they make you feel like part of the family. Residents know the trails, the local eating places and nighttime entertainment in town or at Renfro Valley. They have bike rental shops, a canoe livery service and a nice welcome center.
As more trail towns develop, I look forward to exploring my backyard, the eastern mountains and rivers of Kentucky. See you in Livingston, Morehead, Stearns, Elkhorn City, Whitesburg, Jenkins, Evarts, Cumberland, Lynch, Benham on the trails.