Gov. Matt Bevin and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers announced two grants totaling $10.5 million to spur economic development in Eastern Kentucky at the fifth annual SOAR Summit in Pikeville on Friday.
The announcements were a highlight of the summit, which is meant to celebrate economic and businesses successes in Appalachian Kentucky, and to gather regional leaders who aim to rejuvenate its struggling economy.
Both grants are awarded by the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet’s Division of Abandoned Mine Lands through the Abandoned Mine Lands Pilot Program. That program has awarded more than $80 million to Kentucky projects since 2016.
One grant, for $6 million, will go to Enerblu, a proposed battery manufacturing plant in Pikeville’s Kentucky Enterprise Industrial Park.
Enerblu hopes to create over 900 jobs within three years, not including construction jobs, according to a SOAR press release. The company, along with the City of Pikeville, plan to spend more than $21 million of “in-kind” funds for property purchases, and for road and infrastructure construction at the site.
“It’s more than welcome,” Xavier Guerin, chief marking officer for Enerblu and one of its co-founders, said of the grant.
Guerin said the company hopes to begin construction by the end of the year, but said its engineers have experienced difficulties during the planning phase that have led to some delays. Enerblu currently employs about 25 people at its Lexington offices.
Last year, Kentucky’s Economic Development Finance Authority announced it would provide $30 million in tax incentives for Enerblu.
Asked why the grant was necessary for Enerblu, Bevin said the grant shows the state’s commitment to the project. The money will be used to, among other things, develop the site.
Currently, just one company has built on Pikeville’s industrial park. That company, SilverLiner, a tanker truck manufacturer, is still under construction.
The second grant will give Letcher County $4.5 million for a water infrastructure project that will expand service to 100 households and to a planned federal prison in the county.
According to a SOAR press release, the money will pay for elevated water storage tanks, a waste water treatment plant to serve the prison, and 9.5 miles of water transmission lines.
The prison is projected to be 800 acres large, employ 300 workers and house 1,200 inmates. Officials hope it will bring in an “indirect revenue stream” of $3 million to $4 million to Letcher County and surrounding communities annually.
Neighboring Knott County will also profit, by selling about $289,000 to the prison each year.
In a speech at the summit, Rogers championed SOAR and its mission to bring high-speed Internet access to Eastern Kentucky, as well as larger companies like Enerblu.
Rogers said the region will not be able to locate enough factories in Eastern Kentucky quickly enough to replace the jobs lost during the decline of the coal industry after 2012, when the number of coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky dropped from over 14,000 in 2011 to just shy of 4,000 today.
Rogers called on Kentucky WIRED, a state-led project to bring broadband Internet access to each of Kentucky’s 120 counties, to complete its mission.
“We all know that we’re going through a severe economic change,” Rogers said. “That project is key to the future of our region.”
Also at the summit, the USDA Rural Development agency announced more than $625,000 in grant funding for projects aimed at combating opioid abuse.
Those include a mobile health unit for Magoffin County, which will act as a needle exchange and counseling center, and will provide basic health screenings.
Another project, in Rockcastle and Hart counties, will allow the Isaiah House — a treatment center for men — to purchase homes from the USDA and convert them into transitional housing for individuals and families in recovery.
The USDA sold two foreclosed homes to the Isaiah House for $24,000 and $28,000.
Mark LaPalme, CEO and founder of the Isaiah House, said people in treatment will renovate the houses and later rent them during their recovery. The project aims to provide housing, treatment and job training for those individuals and their families.
“What we’ve been doing in the past just isn’t working,” LaPalme said of opioid treatment and recovery. “We can’t just stand by.”
Bevin also announced a $1.2 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to develop water lines and infrastructure for a 30-acre industrial site in Perry County.
“We believe in the future of Appalachia,” said Jared Arnett, SOAR’s executive director. “Progress is evident.”