Portrait of a county: Breathitt loses people, fights for survival

Breathitt County High School valedictorian Emily Tackett headed for the podium to deliver an address to her fellow graduates during the school's commencement ceremony in Jackson Friday. Tackett plans to study biology on a full scholarship to Union College.
Breathitt County High School valedictorian Emily Tackett headed for the podium to deliver an address to her fellow graduates during the school's commencement ceremony in Jackson Friday. Tackett plans to study biology on a full scholarship to Union College.

JACKSON — Breathitt County High School valedictorian Emily Tackett looks around and doesn't see how she can make a living on her dream of opening a photography and art studio in the place she loves, near her large, close family.

So she's going to use her full-ride scholarship at Union College in Barbourville to study biology. Maybe she will have a better chance at getting a job in health care, to pay the bills while she pursues her art after school.

"There aren't all that many opportunities here," Tackett said in an interview at school two days before graduation. "If I had kids, and I want to have kids and raise them here, I would wish for more opportunity for them."

Here's the trap Breathitt County and its 13,000 residents are in: The county's population could be stabilized by education and jobs, experts say, but funding for schools and libraries is affected by population, which is declining.

Breathitt County had the largest percentage drop in population in the state — 14.7 percent — from the 2000 to the 2010 U.S. Census.

Nearly every county in Eastern Kentucky lost population between 2000 and 2010 because of people leaving to find jobs and a historically low birth rate. Four of the five counties with the steepest population declines were in the state's eastern coalfield.

The decline was even more pronounced among young people.

The school-age population in Breathitt County declined by 24.6 percent, but that was partially offset by a 13.4 percent increase in the 65-and-older population, according to census reports.

"We're seeing a lot of retirees coming back from Ohio, Michigan, Indiana," said Stephen Bowling, Jackson's vice mayor and director of the county's public library. "Younger generations migrate to employment, older generations to retirement."

Some retirees returned to family farms that they kept while working in other states, Bowling said.

"We maintain a huge senior citizens program, a Meals on Wheels program. There's greater demand," said Bowling, who was appointed to run the county-wide campaign to encourage residents to fill out census forms.

The demand for services has increased as the economy has nose-dived.

Bowling has seen those trends converge at the library, where he said usage has nearly quintupled since 2002. "The majority is computer usage," he said.

"We have become job centers. Almost all applications have gone online. As the economy dropped, people began to discontinue their home Internet service."

Since 2007, the state's budgeted annual aid to libraries has dropped from $4 million to $2.9 million. The Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives has advised libraries to expect an additional reduction of 2 percent to 5 percent for the upcoming year, said State Librarian Wayne Onkst.

"So many libraries are experiencing a double blow from lower populations and less state funding," Onkst said.

In 2007, Breathitt County received $21,110 in state support for the public library. This year, based on the 2000 population with state aid reduced to 48 cents per county resident, Breathitt's library received $16,715. If calculations were based on 2010 population, Breathitt County could expect to receive about $15,314.

"It's not good," he said. "In almost every case that I'm aware of it means they will buy fewer books. In some cases, they will maybe not have as many hours."

Schools expect big cuts

The financial cuts are expected to be deeper in the Breathitt County school system. Federal Title I funding is expected to drop up to 10 percent, based on the new census numbers, said director of federal programs Burley Hudson.

"We've already noticed a big change" in funding levels, Hudson said.

"When I talk to students, they are all concerned about the opportunities here," he said.

Counties such as Pike and Perry are insulated somewhat by their larger towns and commercial centers of Pikeville and Hazard.

"When we send our students out of the region to get educated, we need to attract them back," said Pikeville College President Paul Patton, who worked as governor to build up Eastern Kentucky.

"We do have knowledge-based industry here. That's where Pikeville College is the key. ... And the health care industry continues to grow. Pikeville Medical Center is a very valid choice for high-need health care," Patton said. "Those two factors will stabilize the population."

But for counties like Breathitt, Menifee or Leslie, which lack a large education network and large medical facilities, and are at least an hour's drive from Lexington, Ashland or even Pikeville, the difficulty of reversing or living with population decline becomes greater.

"Those counties will have a challenge," Patton said.

Coal jobs declining

Patton, a coal operator before he became governor, also said jobs in the coal industry will continue to decline.

That is a worry because coal has been the backbone of the economy in Eastern Kentucky for generations.

Breathitt County Treasurer Ken Back said he sees the job market as cyclical and rebounding.

"In the 1970s the coal business was good and everybody moved (back home). For most people that was the end of the road," he said. "Education is the key."

Coal severance disbursements to Breathitt County are up — since about 2003 — to about $1 million expected this year, Back said, thanks to rising coal prices and an old mine reopening. But overall, coal production in Central Appalachia is projected to decline, and the industry employs far fewer people now than in the 1970s.

Three-fourths of Breathitt's coal severance tax money goes to pay for the county's bill to send inmates to Three Rivers Regional Jail in Beattyville, he said.

The county's road budget is based on miles of road, not number of people. The county maintains 500 miles of road, one of the largest systems in the state.

Breathitt County has spent $23 million over about four years installing pipes to bring municipal water to the majority of the county's residents. Twenty years ago, Breathitt was the only county in the state with less than half of its population receiving treated municipal water.

Many of the grants cobbled together to pay for those water lines are based not exactly on population but on population density, which hurts a county with Breathitt's sprawling area, Back said. If the same amount of water line helps five homes in Breathitt County and 15 homes in a denser county, the denser county has the advantage, he said.

Grads 'ready to compete'

Patton said he wished the state could have sold more small manufacturers and other light industrial employers on the positives of locating in Eastern Kentucky. He said competing with the high-paying coal industry for skilled workers deterred some employers, and the perception that Eastern Kentucky has "a legacy of undereducated population" is another problem.

But the region "has an awful lot of people coming out of high school ready to compete," Patton said. He thinks building up higher education and working to keep students close to home, where they might rather stay if they had a choice, could help stem the slide.

It will take work on a number of fronts to set the stage for economic development in Eastern Kentucky that could slow or stop the population slide, said Justin Maxson, president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, which provides financing and assistance to businesses in the region.

The needs include more investment in the foundation of a sound economy, such as education, infrastructure and broadband service; training to build the capacity of local leaders; and creating a "buffet" of economic development options from which communities could choose what works for them, Maxson said.

That approach could include programs such as more support for entrepreneurs; better access to capital; technical assistance for small businesses; and development of such sectors as renewable energy, tourism and sustainable forestry.

"We can strengthen the pieces and put them together to create a picture of a better economic future that works for the region," Maxson said.

Values that endure

Patton said the close connection residents feel with Appalachia is another asset the region could use to its advantage.

"While we've lost a lot in Appalachia," he said, "some of the values we've retained is closeness to family and closeness to place. Feeling part of Appalachia."

Tackett, the Breathitt County valedictorian, gets that. She recently won an art contest with a charcoal portrait of her grandmother's reunion with her brother after World War II. The drawing, honored by the Congressional Art Competition, will hang in the U.S. Capitol to represent Rep. Hal Rogers' district.

Tackett said she chose her grandmother, Mary Hazel Tharp, because she wanted a subject that was "real" with meaning and feeling.

"She was my favorite person," Tackett said.

Her grandparents were preachers who started a Pentecostal church in Haddox that Tackett grew up in and wants someday to share with her own family.

"That's what I've been raised in. That's my home."