Tom Eblen

Hey, celebs visiting Appalachia for photo ops: Here’s what the region really needs.

Jennifer Garner practices letters with Kentucky students

Actress Jennifer Garner, who works on behalf of Save the Children, played and helped instruct Manchester Elementary students in Clay County. The school credits achievement improvements to Save the Children early childhood, literacy and math progra
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Actress Jennifer Garner, who works on behalf of Save the Children, played and helped instruct Manchester Elementary students in Clay County. The school credits achievement improvements to Save the Children early childhood, literacy and math progra

Eastern Kentucky has become a popular backdrop for celebrities when they want to be seen as socially conscious. But is it good for the region?

Actress Jennifer Garner visited Manchester Elementary School in Clay County last week in her role as a board member of Save the Children, which gives that school $200,000 a year for special programs. Garner read books to students in the library and played with them in the gym.

Last month, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made a surprise visit to Hazard to talk about technology education with students and teachers from the five-district Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative.

The cooperative’s work also is featured in a new documentary, “The Digital Divide in America,” produced by filmmaker Rory Kennedy and narrated by actor Jamie Foxx.

Last November, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, visited Betsy Layne High School in Floyd County and met with students and teachers. Their foundation later gave $200,000 to upgrade technology in the educational cooperative’s schools.

Ever since President Lyndon Johnson came to Martin County in 1964 to launch the War on Poverty, well-meaning do-gooders have been coming to Eastern Kentucky for photo opportunities. But what is encouraging about these recent celebrity visits is that the celebrities were honoring success rather than just pointing out problems.

Maybe Zuckerberg, like Gates, will follow up with a check. But if high-profile executives really want to make a difference, they will have people from their companies mentor and eventually hire some of these students — and maybe put some company operations in Appalachia.

Eastern Kentucky has made significant educational progress in the past three decades. The trick is transforming that success into sustainable economic development. There are no silver bullets. But then, there never have been.

Even during coal’s boom years, Eastern Kentucky was poor. The real wealth from coal either left the mountains or went into the pockets of the well-connected few. Jobs steadily disappeared with mechanization, and coal’s dominance and environmental destruction discouraged other employers from setting up shop.

Coal jobs will never come back to Eastern Kentucky in any numbers, no matter what President Donald Trump and the “war on coal” politicians say. That’s why smart people in the region are scrambling to diversify the economy.

Technology businesses could be part of the solution. The world has several examples of small, out-of-the-way places where technology businesses have flourished, such as Estonia and Iceland.

Morehead State University’s space science program, which has become a leader in the development of small satellite, shows Eastern Kentuckians can successfully compete on the world stage.

But technology businesses won’t grow without infrastructure. The Kentucky Wired project, which was supposed to bring high-speed internet access to every county in the state, has stalled. It turns out that corporations whose poles are needed for hanging fiber-optic cable don’t want competition. Imagine that.

How this roadblock is or is not solved could have a big impact on Eastern Kentucky’s future. Budgets are tight because for years, politicians have been afraid to fix Kentucky’s broken tax system. Until they do, state government won’t have enough revenue to meet Kentucky’s current needs, much less invest in the future.

Technology infrastructure isn’t just about developing technology industries. It allows modern entrepreneurs to run businesses from wherever they choose. That could be especially important for Eastern Kentucky, because so many natives want to stay in the region — or come back — if they could earn a living.

Let’s face it: Problems that have persisted for more than a century won’t be solved quickly. It will take decades of public and private investment to make a difference.

When Eastern Kentucky can figure out how to flip historic weaknesses into modern strengths, it makes a good story. And if celebrities can be brought in to help tell it, all the better. Everybody loves an underdog.

Directed by Rory Kennedy, the documentary highlights how the futures of millions of American students are in jeopardy because schools across the country do not have access to computers and electronic devices needed to support a 21st century educat

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen

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