2012 hit the mining industry in Eastern Kentucky hard, costing the region over 3,000 high paying jobs and shaking the confidence of residents in their future. During a meeting of the Big Sandy Area Development District in 2012, former Kentucky Governor Paul Patton, one of the strongest leaders our region has ever produced, asked, “Does Eastern Kentucky have unique problems?” Nobody there, including me, answered him. It took me longer than I thought it would to find out the answer is no. Not only are our problems not unique, they can be solved, if we can learn from the examples of others.
On September 19, 1977 Youngstown Ohio, a town completely dependent on the steel industry for its economic livelihood, suffered what its residents called “Black Monday.” On Black Monday the largest steel plant in town closed for good, and Youngstown lost 5000 high paying jobs. On that single day Youngstown lost more jobs than Eastern Kentucky did in all of 2012; by 1982 Youngstown, a blue-collar town built on the ethos of steel workers, would lose 45,000 more jobs. There was no advance warning; workers were called in and told they were laid off for good. Readers interested in the details of Youngstown will find a lively account in George Packer’s new book, “The Unwinding of America: An Inner History of the New America,” published in 2013.
In the 1800s coal from mines in South Wales powered Welsh and British factories and helped give birth to the Industrial Revolution. Wales became a predominantly coal producing region, and its peak coal employed over a quarter of the region’s entire workforce. But a century later it was gone; by the end of the 1980s over 85,000 coal jobs and the coal industry had vanished from Wales, leaving many towns and communities reeling from the loss of revenue and sources of employment.
Both Youngstown and Wales suffered hard times when their leading industries abandoned them. High unemployment, rising crime, severe population loss, and a sense of hopelessness became pervasive. But neither Wales nor Youngstown perished. In 2012 local leaders in Youngstown launched a 75 million dollar effort, funded by both private and government sources, to transform the town into a national technology hub for manufacturing innovation. Slowly but surely jobs and people are returning to Youngstown. Patricia Beaver and Tom Hansell from East Tennessee State University have documented the efforts of local citizens in Wales to create new jobs through entrepreneurship and innovation. While the economy of Wales has not recovered to levels it enjoyed during the peak of coal mining, things are improving.
Eastern Kentucky has not yet suffered a blow as severe as either Youngstown or Wales, and unlike those two locations we have been given warning signs in advance. Coal will and should remain a part of our economic engine for as long as possible, but we should also invest in new sources of prosperity. The excellent work by East Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program to bring more telework opportunities to our region is a promising model for success. Telework means bringing in jobs without the factories. A series of internet hubs in our small towns across Eastern Kentucky could provide a thousand new jobs for residents and training for those interested in doing telework. Those hubs could also help better connect local entrepreneurs to the global economy.
The challenges Eastern Kentucky faces are serious but they are not unique or insurmountable. As Youngstown and Wales have taught us, only the energy and innovation of local citizens working together with their elected officials can create the desired levels of prosperity. Creating jobs is a critical step in the process, so I will challenge my fellow Eastern Kentuckians to fill this one: who is ready to be our chief imagination officer? The Bible tells us where there is no vision, the people will perish. Youngstown and Wales created a vision and are working towards its attainment. If they can do it, we can do it.