Within one of the storefront buildings along the modest Main Street of downtown Hindman, men curled over workbenches on a recent Wednesday and whittled hardwood into the familiar outlines of guitars and mandolins.
Sanders and chisels turned the wood into sawdust that fell to the floor. Nathan Smith, a gruff Knott County native with a baritone voice, used to come here often.
He represents what the Appalachian School of Luthiery hopes to offer Eastern Kentucky: a chance for people with a substance use disorder to turn their lives around, all while providing Hindman a similar hope for a brighter economic future.
He’s one of the first employees of the school’s sister factory, the Troublesome Creek Stringed Instrument Company, housed just down the street in the Kentucky School of Craft. It plans to employ 65 people in six years and sell some of the highest-quality stringed instruments in the country.
With just a handful of employees on staff and no guitars yet on market, the factory still has hurdles to overcome, but its founders believe its model has promise.
They’ll use sustainably sourced Appalachian hardwoods to build the guitars, many of which will be crafted by former drug users who went through treatment programs at its luthiery school. Since the beginning of 2018, about 40 students have gone through the luthiery program. Nearly all were either referred to the luthiery through drug court — a supervised treatment program offered to convicted criminals in lieu of jail time — or a nearby rehab center.
Earlier this year, the Appalachian Regional Commission awarded an $867,000 grant to get the factory up and running, along with a $220,000 investment from the East Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program.
In total, the factory plans to spend about $1.2 million over the next three years on its operating costs. Its management hopes to begin creating revenue through guitar sales within the next few months, and turn a profit within the next three years.
Doug Naselroad, director of Troublesome Creek and master luthier at the Appalachian School of Luthiery, said he thinks the factory could help jump start Hindman’s economy, leading to a greater demand for restaurants and other businesses in its sleepy downtown.
During a recent interview, Naselroad compared Troublesome Creek’s model for economic development to others that have promised more, but failed to deliver.
A company called Enerblu, for example, promised hundreds of high-paying jobs at a battery plant near Pikeville, and attracted the support of numerous state and local politicians. The project eventually faltered, leaving local investors out more than $1 million with no jobs to show for it.
His project is different, he said. It will create fewer jobs, but is rooted in local history, is fueled by local residents craving a better future, and is more manageable in scale.
“There almost never is a factory and jobs that come of it,” Naselroad said of past economic development proposals. “This is tiny compared to those big pie-in-the-sky things, but they’re real jobs. There are guys working.”
Troublesome Creek’s lowest-paid employees currently make $13 an hour and receive no benefits. Naselroad said he plans to change that once the factory starts turning a profit.
In addition to funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission, the factory has also attracted investments from other groups, including the Appalachian Impact Fund, which invests in projects in Eastern Kentucky that are “accountable to, and directed by, local people and place,” according to its website.
Lora Smith, the fund’s executive director, said she sees Troublesome Creek as “an important social enterprise in the region with lots of promise.”
“Even though they can be small in scale and difficult to get done, they’re the projects that, in my experience and in our broader experience, can sustain themselves,” Smith said. “They end up being more successful than the kind of flash-in-the-pan, flashy projects that you see.”
Path to recovery
Like many students at the Appalachian School of Luthiery, Nathan Smith ended up there after years of substance use disorder led to his eventual arrest.
Marijuana and alcohol led to harder things, including methamphetamine, and in August 2017, Smith was picked up during a county-wide drug trafficking roundup.
He spent about ten days in jails before posting bond, and, after months fighting his case, pleaded guilty and enrolled in Knott County Drug Court.
“The methamphetamine is really hard, really hard to quit,” he said. “But I knew, when I did get in trouble, I knew that if I didn’t stop then, I was gonna wind up dead or in worse trouble.”
Along with frequent drug tests, the drug court requires participants to take classes during the week. They gave Smith three options: blacksmithing, pottery or luthiery. A musician, he opted for luthiery.
The court required him to attend the school once a week for two hours, but within a couple months, Smith said he was hooked. He often showed up at 8:30 or 9 a.m. to sweep and get the shop ready for the day, and stayed for 8 hours or more.
It helped keep him sober during drug court — he graduated in May of this year — and allowed him to build skills that would lead to eventual employment, he said.
After spending about a year making instruments at the luthiery, Smith was hired as one of Troublesome Creek’s first employees.
“I never imagined it turning into a job, like it has, but I stuck with it — it was something I had a passion for,” he said.
A future for Hindman
Smith doesn’t see Troublesome Creek as just a chance to grow his own future — he wants it to help Hindman, too.
The limited number of well-paying jobs, coupled with few recreational opportunities, has contributed to the prevalence of drug addiction, including his own, he said.
“There’s just nothing, nothing here,” he said. “And I think that’s a big problem.”
The number of coal jobs in the county has dropped to a third of what it was in 2012, according to figures from the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, and the county’s unemployment rate has for years remained well above the statewide average.
According to 2015 figures from the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, more than 70 percent of working Knott County residents commuted outside the county to find work.
More than 20 years ago, Gov. Paul Patton, through his Community Development Initiative, directed $25.2 million into the county to bolster an arts scene and help diversify its coal-dependent economy.
Much of that money went to the Kentucky School of Craft, where Troublesome Creek is housed, as well as other public projects, including a new city hall and new water and sewer lines.
Patton’s investments never led to the growth he imagined, but Naselroad, the luthiery’s director, said the Appalachian Regional Commission’s investment could finally help bring that vision to fruition.
He hopes his factory, if it grows as planned, could encourage federal and state leaders to focus more funding on smaller, locally-owned businesses, rather than larger proposals that often don’t make it off the ground.
“People keep falling for that, over and over and over. Maybe the people that are coming in don’t really understand what they’re trying to do, or maybe they’re just being cynical and playing on the hopes of a community, but the fact is that those things almost always tank,” he said. “We’re hopefully not headed in that direction.”
“If you have, interwoven, hundreds of small businesses in Appalachia that are robust, then you have a strong economy even if you never have an Enerblu,” he said.
Smith said Troublesome Creek would be the first manufacturing plant of its kind in the county. He believes it has the potential to foster new businesses in a downtown where there’s now just one restaurant within walking distance, creating new jobs and curbing addiction in the process.
“If this creates 60 jobs and the county starts to expand and grow and we get more revenue, maybe there will be more things built here in the county that could help with the addiction, help with the opioid crisis,” he said. “But it’s gonna take something to create revenue to do that.”