Will E. Ky. give young people a place at the table?

Jamie Lucke
Jamie Lucke

The word at last week’s Shaping Our Appalachian Region summit was “ecosystem,” as in “tech ecosystem” or “entrepreneurial ecosystem” or we have the “genesis of an ecosystem.”

The hair was gray. You couldn’t miss that from the upper level of the East Kentucky Expo Center in Pikeville. I’ve got nothing against the gray-haired. If you doubt it, check my roots.

Still, I had to think: When envisioning a better future, you need more people who are going to be around in the future.

Don’t get me wrong, there were young people at the summit. And SOAR’s executive director, Jared Arnett, is young, smart and committed, a Salyersville native, Morehead State University MBA, musician and partner in a guitar store in Pikeville. He’s the kind of ambitious, creative young person the mountains desperately need.

And so are the young people who staged a silent protest against plans to build yet another federal prison in Eastern Kentucky.

As SOAR co-founder U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers opened the summit, the theme of which was “Innovation,” members of the Letcher Governance Project unfurled a banner that said “Prisons are not innovation” — which is irrefutable — to protest plans for a 1,200-inmate federal prison on a former strip-mine site near the old-growth Lilly Cornett Woods in Roxana.

As chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rogers, who sports a great head of white hair, secured the project, which would be the fourth federal prison built in his district during his 35 years in Congress. The others are in Clay, Martin and McCreary counties, all still poor.

The college-educated young people who started the Letcher Governance Project, and imagine something better than a prison, could live anywhere, but want to live in Letcher County. I suspect that over time their passion for the place would prove a far greater asset than 300 prison jobs. Engaging that passion and using it as fuel is critical to the hoped-for economic transition.

But the response to their concerns has ranged from none to hostile.

The Letcher Planning Commission, controlled by powerful elders, has been trying to land a federal prison for more than a decade. (How’s that for low self-esteem?)

In response to the protesters’ concerns, Rogers’ communications director told us: “While everyone may not agree on every project or initiative in our region, it is incumbent upon us to work together to recruit new jobs and opportunities in the coalfields where the unemployment rate continues to hover above 11 percent and more than 11,000 coal miners have been laid off over the last eight years. While neither a federal prison, broadband or any other single project will serve as a silver bullet for poverty, SOAR's concept of a holistic approach is needed to create hundreds of jobs, boost our economy and bring hope back to our communities. We need to pool together resources from a multitude of places as we work together for progress and innovation.”

She didn’t mention “ecosystems” but I gather that term has replaced “cluster” in economic development jargon; it does better describe the interdependent nature of economies as they ferment and expand.

I’m not sure if Whitesburg, Letcher County’s seat, qualifies as an ecosystem of media and culture, but it’s close. Whitesburg boasts one of the War on Poverty’s unabashed successes in Appalshop, the media, arts and education center, and is home to Mountain Tech Media, one of the ventures held up as part of the nascent tech ecosystem. Its’ cultural scene appeals to the sort of smart young people who leave the mountains in droves and that every city is trying to attract.

The founders of the Letcher Governance Project envision better choices than working in a mine or a prison. They want a government that responds to more than just the few who’ve always prospered amidst the poverty. Eastern Kentucky power structures are notorious for punishing challengers. But ecosystems go putrid when fresh water or fresh ideas are shut out.

If we want college grads to come home and start businesses — and everyone says we do — they must have a seat at the tables where decisions are made. They may not win but they must be heard.

What Kentucky’s mountains need, even more than that good ol’ federal money, is human capital — smart, passionate young people who have high aspirations for where they live, because if the region has a future, they are it.

Editorial writer Jamie Lucke can also be reached at 231-3340.