Last week, I took on a thorny issue: Why is Eastern Kentucky so poor? My answer: Geography, location, and culture. I believe our geography makes travel a challenge, collaboration difficult, and, most importantly, the creation of any kind of urban area, virtually impossible in most places. (Note the limited exceptions: Pikeville, Hazard, London and Somerset and tell me flat(ish) land doesn’t matter).
A related factor is location. While many rural communities in other Appalachian states have performed better than ours, they have the good fortune of being close to major urban areas, like Knoxville and Asheville (metro population 400,000-plus).
Finally, I blame culture issues as well. Our commitment to place is both wonderful and limiting; our political culture causes us to frequently choose sub-optimal local governments; and we’re frequently shy about taking advantage of all the educational opportunities here. That’s just the working class. There’s also an impoverished class in our region many of whom have never known anything but government aid for generations. Their ability to join a formal workforce is beyond challenging.
This is my diagnosis. It’s doubtless unappealing to some, and even blunt to others. While there are doubtless other factors, I believe these are the primary factors in limiting our growth. Given this, what should we do?
First, we have to realize our challenge and what success means. We will not move out of statistical poverty quickly. Our anchors are too heavy and our sails just too weak for rapid progress. Progress must be marginal if steady and our self-perception should take that into account. It will take long, hard work and outsiders won’t save us.
Geography means urban growth will be difficult outside a few areas. And because of location, even these areas will likely not become a new Asheville or Huntington or Knoxville. Even the growth we do see in these communities will filter slowly at best up the hollers and creeks. Finally, without a critical mass of highly qualified workers (read: educated, with work history, and being able to pass drug screens), we won’t be able to develop a large center for industry to coalesce around.
For these reasons, our future will continue to be very rural. Shorn of cities, the economic engines in most areas, we must choose a strategy that instead focuses on what one entrepreneur recently called “creating pockets of prosperity.”
A strategy that focuses on growing pockets of prosperity and trying to expand these outwards also takes into ac0count our cultural challenges. We are a “show me” region and will not be quick, in most instances, to embrace change. Further, by focusing on creating these pockets we can work around the sheer poverty in the area.
Entrepreneurship should be our watchword. The practice of creating and sustaining enterprises should be our top priority. I will discuss this in future columns.
Johnathan Gay is the Director of the Kentucky Innovation Network office in Morehead. (www.kyinnovation.com) The opinions expressed here are his own.