I have attended many conferences in the past two decades about creating a more diverse economy in Eastern Kentucky to replace the long-anticipated collapse of the region’s coal-mining industry.
Most of those gatherings reminded me of that old joke about the weather: “Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.”
Fortunately, things are changing. That was evident in the presentations Friday that attracted more than 200 people to Hazard Community and Technical College called Big Ideas Fest for Appalachia: Visionary Thinking and Doing.
The best parts of the conference were the reports from students and teachers about how they are learning new technology — from middle school kids building computers at home with help from online videos to Morehead State University students building tiny satellites for NASA space missions.
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I was especially impressed with the students and their teachers who spoke about how popular technology education is becoming in middle and high schools.
TheHoller.org, an online social learning network, is enabling young people and their teachers throughout Central Appalachia’s distant “hollers” to share ideas, learn about new technology and see what each other are doing with it.
“They want to go to college and learn more about computer science,” teacher Stephanie Younger said. “They want to go into these industries, and they want these industries to come here.”
The conference was organized by the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Appalachian Renaissance Initiative, a consortium of 17 school districts in the region that have gotten together to share resources and learning opportunity.
Keynote speakers were Jay Williams, an assistant U.S. Commerce secretary and director of the U.S. Economic Development Administration, and Hal Heiner, secretary of Kentucky’s Education and Workforce Cabinet. Both gave inspiring talks about Appalachia’s possibilities.
Heiner focused on helping students earn some college credits while in high school to help encourage them to move on to post-secondary education, either at college or technical schools, which he thinks haven’t been valued enough as a career pathway.
Williams, a former mayor of Youngstown, Ohio, discussed the similarities between the collapse of the steel-making industry in his hometown and Eastern Kentucky’s coal industry.
“When it went away we were bitter,” Williams said of the Youngstown steel mills that closed between 1977 and through the mid-1980s. “For years we waited for someone else to fix it. Finally, we said, what are the skills and assets that make us special? How do we use them for a foundation for the future?”
Speakers from Appalachia talked about the need for more cooperation among counties and regions and more long-term investments in the future, especially for technology infrastructure such as high-speed broadband.
Rather than trying to bring a lot of outside industry into the region — a strategy that has met little success — many people have focused on developing entrepreneurship among people who already live here and want to stay. The key is not just creating small companies to meet local needs, but to produce goods and services that can be exported to bring more wealth into the region.
One of the most successful efforts has been led by Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp., a former War on Poverty agency that has helped create more than 18,000 jobs in the region since 1968.
President Jerry Rickett said there is opportunity in creating new small businesses, but also in growing existing ones. He cited census data showing 83,861 “micro enterprises” in Appalachian Kentucky that employ almost 400,000 people.
“If you could just get 10 percent of those businesses to hire one more person, it would create a lot of jobs,” Rickett said.
Many of those small enterprises involve Appalachia’s rich cultural heritage. For example, The Palace in Middlesboro helps Appalachian artists and craftsmen sell their work, both to tourists and online through websites such as Etsy.com.
“We’re talking big business here,” said Bill Weinberg, chairman of the Appalachian Artisan Center in Hindman, another such corsortium. “This isn’t just corn shuck dolls.”
Many speakers emphasized that no industry, or even a handful of industries, is likely to become as big an economic driver as coal once was. But that’s not necessarily bad, because single-industry economies are vulnerable to downturns and changing economics. Eastern Kentucky’s economic future will depend on a lot of things, from corn shuck dollars to miniature space satellites.