Last updated: November 07. 2013 2:38PM - 1462 Views
Al Cross

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Editor’s Note: This column first appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal.

When Homer F. Marcum was editing and publishing The Martin Countian in the early 1980s, in the last Kentucky county to see development of large-scale coal mining, and the one where the war on poverty had been declared in 1964, he would often fill gaps in his gutsy weekly with small versions of the headline from one of his editorials: “What will we do when the coal is gone?”

Homer’s question has been answered with many words in Eastern Kentucky during the last 30 years, but rarely with deeds. Now, the coal isn’t gone, but the mines are going.

The Central Appalachian coal industry has begun what is expected to be a long, slow decline, punctuated by the loss of 6,000 Eastern Kentucky coal jobs in the last two years. The region will keep producing coal for many years, but most of those jobs aren’t coming back, and more will be lost. What will Eastern Kentucky, and our state as a whole, do when they’re gone?

We began to get more answers last week, and this time some deeds seem more likely to follow.

In Hazard on Monday, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican U.S. Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers announced a joint federal-state effort to shape the future economy of the East Kentucky Coalfield, dubbing it “Shaping Our Appalachian Region,” complete with a logo of a bald eagle soaring over mountains and a river. But this was more than showmanship.

With federal money, Beshear and Rogers have hired a national rural-policy expert to manage an effort to write an economic plan that will come at least in part from the grass roots, beginning at a summit in Pikeville on Dec. 9.

The presence of an outside manager who can keep the effort focused and well-informed bodes well, as does the idea of a “y’all come” meeting where elites who have usually run things in the region will have to listen to those whose useful ideas have received mostly lip service — and precious little of that — from those aligned with coal. More such folks should be involved, even before the summit.

But what most gives hope is the first strong, bipartisan push for helping Appalachian Kentucky since the early 1960s, when Republican U.S. Sen. John Sherman Cooper, Democratic Govs. Bert Combs and Ned Breathitt, and Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson drove the ball that was teed up by Whitesburg lawyer Harry Caudill’s book “Night Comes to the Cumberlands” and the national news reporting that followed.

And it was encouraging, too, that the Beshear-Rogers event had none of the political rhetoric that has dominated and misled the eastern coalfield during President Barack Obama’s administration, blaming his “war on coal” for job losses that came mainly from coal’s loss of power-plant share to newly plentiful, cheap natural gas, and from depletion of easily mined coal, making Central Appalachia the most expensive U.S. coalfield to mine.

Obama’s stricter rules for mountaintop-removal mining (to prevent water pollution) and greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants (to slow climate change) have cast longer shadows on the coalfield. Now its political and business leaders are openly emphasizing diversification.

“Our best resources are a different energy source,” Rogers said Monday. “It’s our people.” Inez coal operator Jim Booth said he kept his company going by diversifying (into convenience stores), and the region needs to do the same.

Booth said likewise from Inez on Wednesday, in a conference call revealing a 113-page study for the foundation of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, which he recently chaired, looking at the potential for tourism development in the area between Interstates 64 and 75. The study pointed to the most popular tourism idea among the leaders at this point — redevelopment of one or more state parks into “destination resorts” by private enterprise, facilitated by legislation to ease public-private partnerships, which chamber President David Adkisson said would be a priority for the business lobby in the 2014 legislative session.

The study also notes the region’s shortage of high-speed Internet service, an obstacle to attracting tourists and employers. In an interview Thursday, Rogers acknowledged that he’s working on that problem, but said he is waiting on a feasibility study being done by a government agency (which he wouldn’t name) before talking about details. Still, he noted how several government contractors in the region — along I-75, where Internet speeds are faster — are doing digital work that “can be done anywhere,” and made clear that he would like that kind of speed “all the way to the borders.”

Rogers is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, but the new policy against budget earmarks, and the way the House works these days, make him less powerful than his predecessors. But he is still in a key position to make things happen, and seems committed to the cause.

Beshear has a Washington role, too. Obama promised during his climate-policy speech this spring that he would help areas hurt by it, and it makes sense for the Democratic governor to hold the president to his promise. Beshear’s office said he was traveling out of state and unavailable to talk, but he and the congressman appear to be in harness for the long run.

Rogers said they hatched the idea at one of their occasional dinners at the governor’s mansion: “He’s a friend from way back” to 1980, when Beshear was attorney general and Rogers was commonwealth’s attorney for Pulaski and Rockcastle counties and getting elected to Congress for the first time. “We’re all focused now by the problem that the coal industry is facing.”

The most telling line Beshear uttered Monday was a repeat for emphasis, in italics here: “To be successful, the people of Appalachia, the people of Appalachia, must step up and take ownership and responsibility for their own future.”

The word “entrepreneurs” wasn’t mentioned in Monday’s speeches, but Rogers said Thursday that the region needs more of them, and more capital for them to create jobs. He acknowledged that there’s a defeatist attitude in the region that must be overcome, but “I saw a lot of enthusiasm” Monday, and “that was a little bit of a surprise.”

As Beshear indicated, ingrained attitudes won’t be overcome by state political leaders. The people of the region, who have elected and tolerated too many bad local politicians, need to get more involved, and two places to start are the Pikeville summit and next year’s local elections.

In the end, Eastern Ken­tucky’s answer to “What do we do when the coal is gone?” will not be one answer. It will be many answers, some applying to single communities, and it will be largely up to the communities of Kentucky’s Appalachian coalfield to put those answers into reality.

Al Cross, former C-J political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. His opinions are his own, not UK’s.

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