Southeast Ky.’s aces in the hole: recreation, gaming

The author, Johnny Giles, on mountain near Jenkins, Ky.
The author, Johnny Giles, on mountain near Jenkins, Ky.

The contributions of Kentucky’s eastern counties are most often overlooked. So is the fact that the residents are seeing tough times and facing hard choices.

In recent years, the coal mining industry, formerly the backbone of the local economies, has been decimated.

While Pikeville has seemed to somehow weather the storm better than the surrounding areas, due to a larger supply of capital as well as the University of Pikeville and medical center, the more rural areas are currently in search of a solution for the future.

One solution may be found in the small, independent city of Jenkins, due to its particular location and resources. Currently, this city is already a typical all-American town, hidden in the blue-collar hills of Eastern Kentucky. It has a small lake as well as a golf course.

The ground here is certainly fertile for further opportunities. This is where hope just might be found. Local residents and officials have recently come together, forming think tanks and plans for where Jenkins and Letcher County will go in the future. While coal most likely will not regain its former glory, there is confidence that future prosperity could yet come.

One solution, of course, is that the area could prosper through developing trails, campsites and using the natural wonders found here in these mountains. Second, plans are being discussed which could bring some type of adventure park to the area, capitalizing on the setting in much the way that northeast Tennessee and northwest North Carolina have done.

Perhaps the most intriguing idea, and one that could help bring the aforementioned plans to fruition is that of developing an area lodge with gaming floor. While this notion may seem far-fetched to some, Kentucky already has a successful lottery and other gaming venues, as well as a strong culture of horse racing.

A similar venture, once the appropriate licensing is acquired, could create a strong economy in Eastern Kentucky that would bring hordes of tourist dollars into the area, boosting development of not only gaming, but also outdoor recreation, a theme park, shopping and lodging.

James Hibbitts of Raven Rock Entertainment explained that, “We want to work with the public and public officials all across the state to bring this project to life and help anchor the Eastern Kentucky economy.”

Nearby Murphy, N.C., has seen quite a similar economic downturn. When the area's textile industry collapsed, gaming came to the area, and saved these residents from economic disaster.

“These attractions could be transformational to the economy of Southeastern Kentucky and have a positive economic impact for all of Kentucky,” says Gary Stratton, director of the newly formed Free Market Institute of Kentucky.

While the economic reality of Eastern Kentucky is currently fraught with challenges, the people here are a resilient breed. And, while, the sound of coal cars in the distance may not be a sustainable long-term goal, there certainly are many other options on the table. Echoes of the area’s natural beauty, mixed with its already-successful economy through gaming, just might be the wave of the future.

Johnny Giles, of Big Stone Gap, Va., is a freelance writer who has written about Appalachia for Fox News.