Nathan Hall, a Letcher countian who organizes tree plantings on surface-mined lands throughout Appalachia, puts it succinctly. "It's important to respect the hard work of our current and former miners, but it's also dangerous to tie your cultural identity to an industry that's quickly disappearing."
Eastern Kentuckians are agreeing more and more with Nathan's point of view. This will no doubt be known as coal country for generations to come, but the industry has to be thought of as a piece to the puzzle rather than the entire picture lest we go the way of Detroit.
"Our future economy is going to be made up of a lot more small parts. I think it's a mistake to discount the part that the coal industry will play," says Evan Smith, a staff attorney at the Appalachian Citizens' Law Center in Whitesburg. "Just like it's a mistake to discount the part that tourism or retiree incomes will play. The thing that we all have to reconcile as a region is how those parts can coexist and we can make the most of the opportunities we have."
Those opportunities no longer include a guaranteed high-paying job in the mines. "Accepting that truth would signal to people around here that it's time to think more entrepreneurially and not just wait on coal to come back or unemployment to run out," says Smith.
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Mike Slone, Brandon Day and Matt Corbin have accepted that truth.
Slone is the founder and brewmaster of 23 Brewing Co., a nanobrewery in Prestonsburg. Day is a freelance graphic and web designer in Paintsville. And Corbin is the chef/owner of The Blue Raven Restaurant & Pub in downtown Pikeville.
Inspired by the booming craft beer scenes in Lexington and Louisville, Slone decided Eastern Kentucky deserved the same. "The obstacles we face are stacked pretty high," says Slone, "but they're not impossible to overcome. Our biggest challenge is simply getting people to try something new and different." Nevertheless, he sees signs of a strong local food and beverage culture already.
Chef Matt Corbin echoes that sentiment. His Blue Raven Restaurant & Pub, which serves made-from-scratch seasonal fare, opened on Pikeville's Main Street a year and a half ago. Since then, several other locally owned bars and restaurants have launched in the downtown area.
"It's been great. I can ask for heirloom tomatoes on Facebook and somebody will bring me heirloom tomatoes. Not every chef can do that. People here want to participate and are eager for alternatives but we have to realize that these opportunities are ours to create. They're not going to come from anywhere else."
In order to stand out in a sea of franchises, these small businesses require the services of creative professionals like Day. But convincing potential clients in the region of the importance of modern necessities like cool branding and an engaging social media presence can be a challenge. "[Businesses] here need to understand how important their presentation is these days," says Day.
Misguided political power is also a common concern. "If our leaders were to be honest about what they can and can't do for the region's economy," says Smith, "we would see that there's not much that coalfield politicians can do to change federal environmental legislation but there's a lot that they can do to help foster other opportunities that would produce jobs in this area."
Jason Foley, rafting guide and owner of Kentucky Whitewater, for example, says Eastern Kentucky's Russell Fork could be a mecca for whitewater tourism, but the upstream Flanagan Reservoir is managed with little to no concern for downstream recreation. "It isn't conducive to sustainable business," he says, estimating that the local economy is missing out on about $11 million every year as a result of a problem that could be easily fixed.
So the situation here is far from hopeless. Good people are doing good things and want to do more. But there's an across-the-board frustration with our political leaders' lack of vision and the amount of time, money and energy that is wasted keeping up a "Coal is King" appearance.
It's optimism in a way, but it's misplaced, and it keeps people in a state of fear and false hope. It keeps them of the mind that without this one thing we have nothing and that somebody from somewhere else will surely come to save us.
The truth is, nobody is coming.
The whole truth is that this is the best thing that could possibly happen as it will force us to abandon the entitlement mentality and return to our roots of proud self-reliance. It will open our eyes to the fact that we are wildly unique, even in our own commonwealth, and afford us the opportunity to define, for ourselves this time, what it really means to be an Eastern Kentuckian.