Walk though Clay City, in Powell County, and you notice empty lots where houses once stood, a busy pawn shop, used-car lots, a gas station converted into a place of worship, lawns where merchants sell furniture and used clothing, crumbling storefronts and other evidence of a community in need of ideas, investment and revitalization.
Certainly, you also notice some well-kept homes and a few historic buildings, one of which houses the Red River Museum and another which is home to a succession of popular restaurants. Many here treasure stories of the Clay City of the early 1900s, a bustling town with a logging industry, hotels, a rail line, fine homes and a thriving economy. That Clay City is now part of Kentucky history, yet in an America strengthened by reinvention and revitalization, there are those working to restore hope and vitality to this and other historic Eastern Kentucky communities.
A growing group of Powell County citizens is meeting monthly to improve the community's quality of life and identify new economic development opportunities. The challenge is to attract and retain quality jobs with a future for both the worker and the community. This will remain one of Powell County's fundamental challenges, but with advantages such as the Red River Gorge and Natural Bridge State Resort Park, renaissance is attainable with effort, commitment and a community vision.
It's clear, though, that Clay City, neighboring Stanton and other communities are reduced to subsistence rather than sustainable economies. A federal disability check is something that many receive or desire; there's a mini-run on automated teller machines the night federal funds become available. In all likelihood the majority of the money is quickly dispersed rather than invested.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
Meanwhile, children go hungry, citizens go without work and the community slides further into poverty. We must halt this slide, and halt it soon, for there are citizens here who want to work, invest and save, young people who want jobs and careers in their hometowns.
As we recognize the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, the infusion of federal assistance for families, although a godsend for those struggling to care for their children and put food on the table, will never meet our true challenge: building sustainable economies. This historic and beautiful part of our commonwealth, which the pioneers used as a gateway to Central Kentucky and then to the West, needs jobs, not handouts; investment in education and infrastructure, not pep talks and quick fixes.
We can't give in, not now or ever. We must continue our dialogue, with one goal: improving the lives of our families and neighbors. What we don't want is to throw up our hands and say, as did Mary Lou Rittner, a homeless resident of Manhattan quoted in The New York Times: "I don't expect anything, and I haven't been disappointed."