Op-Ed

Prison detractors should say how they would bring jobs to Letcher County’s unemployed coal miners

Elwood Cornett, a retired educator who has helped lead the the effort to have the federal government build a high-security prison in Letcher County, shows the preferred site for the prison, on a spot flattened by surface mining at Roxana. 8/6/2015
Elwood Cornett, a retired educator who has helped lead the the effort to have the federal government build a high-security prison in Letcher County, shows the preferred site for the prison, on a spot flattened by surface mining at Roxana. 8/6/2015 bestep@herald-leader.com

Fourteen years ago, the Letcher County Planning Commission embarked on a journey to recruit new industry and more jobs to our historic coal-producing county.

Our beautiful mountainous region has wielded a double-edged sword in many instances; while conducive to energy resources, wood products and tourism, the development of other thriving industries in bigger cities — like manufacturing and technology — has been impeded by our landscape and lack of connectivity.

We carefully considered our options to bring as many jobs as possible in one fell swoop. After several brainstorming sessions with local leaders, the idea to recruit a federal prison to Letcher County began to take root. Congressman Hal Rogers had successfully helped recruit three other federal prison facilities to Eastern Kentucky and we believed his experience would help generate the momentum we needed.

The first seed of hope was planted in 2006, when Rogers secured $5 million for a study to examine the potential for a prison in Letcher County. The process has been long and slow, as the Bureau of Prisons conducted land surveys and environmental studies to find enough acreage on flat land to build a facility. We had no idea how challenging and thorough the process would be.

Still yet, we continued to visit Washington, D.C., and Frankfort and to hold local meetings to press forward.

As our patience wore thin over the years, thousands of coal miners began to receive pink slips and our local coal mines closed operations one-by-one. Our economy has suffered severe losses with the decline of the coal industry, removing a critical tax base and eliminating coal severance tax dollars that we depended heavily upon for decades. It only fueled the urgency behind our efforts to push for a federal prison.

My neighbors continue to struggle to find work that would offer comparable pay to the coal mines without having to leave home. Outsiders have told us to concede and move away to find jobs elsewhere, but that doesn’t solve problems for those who want to stay close to family and friends and raise their children right here in the heart of Appalachia.

While we pinned our hopes on getting a federal prison facility, we never considered it as our only option for a brighter future. The Letcher County Planning Commission has also supported tourism projects, local entrepreneurs and small businesses in their efforts to create jobs and expand opportunities for our young people.

We’ve attended SOAR meetings, co-chaired by Rogers and Gov. Matt Bevin, to learn more about extending broadband into our communities and the benefits it would bring to our schools, our hospitals and new businesses.

Just when we thought the prison might be out of reach, Rogers helped secure nearly $500 million in federal funding for construction — $444 million in 2016 and another $50 million last year.

Finally, on Good Friday this year, we received the blessed news from Rogers that the final paperwork had been signed by the director of the Bureau of Prisons, approving construction of a federal prison facility in Letcher County. The news has lifted an incredible burden that this commission has shouldered for years to help bring good paying jobs to the place we call home.

When naysayers from other states and outside communities downplay the importance of the jobs that this prison will bring to Letcher County, I question what solutions they have to offer that will create over 300 sustainable, well-paying jobs in a region that is struggling to rebound. Moreover, we gladly welcome the additional businesses that will accompany the prison, from fast food restaurants to hotels to retailers.

It’s all a part of making Letcher County a better place to live and there is no better feeling than having a good-paying job close to home where you can work and raise your family.

Elwood Cornett is a member of the Letcher County Planning Commission.

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