Last updated: March 10. 2014 4:16PM - 2383 Views
Johnathan Gay

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There are few signs that an industrial renaissance is about to hit Eastern Kentucky. The manufacturing economy seems ill suited for our region. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum is high tech. While I’ve witnessed tremendous promise on the part of a few tech-entrepreneurs in our region, there’s just not enough high-tech activity in East Kentucky to build a regional economy around. What does that leave us?

One answer may be an artisan economy. That is, an economy focused on creating niche, alternative-brand products, services and attractions based, in large part, on our culture and heritage. It’s a strategy that’s currently being pursued in Portland, Ore. Why not here?

Consider this snip from a blog on the artisan economy initiative: “Brew, food, fashion, bikes – what do these have in common? They are all part of Portland’s emerging artisan economy. Other cities have their bohemian districts, but Portland stands alone as an urban economy that has broadly embraced the artisan approach to living and working.”

The blog points out a number of characteristics of an artisan economy and some ways it differs from the traditional economy.

Product Qualities: Emphasis on the unique; authentic, not fake; locally distinct.

Worker lifestyle: Improvisational work, not routine; local situated knowledge; work as vocation, not just a job; follows rhythms of season and project; integrates work and living space.

Organizational Structure: Small and medium scale enterprise; high worker autonomy; flexible specialization; clustered, collaborative firms; low barriers to entry (yet still protectable due to uniqueness- not everyone can be Appalachia Proud).

Moral Economy: Price related to appreciation of inherent product quality; local, self-reliant enterprise.

These categories scream “Appalachia,” an area full of unique offerings, independent workers, small scale enterprise, and an almost reverent focus on staying put in the lands of our forefathers. In many ways, we’re already building an artisan economy.

Consider moonshine: In Floyd County there’s an effort afoot to create white lightening tours. Or food: In Pike County, Joyce Pinson has become “a farm to table writer, TV personality, public speaker and heirloom gardener.” Pinson maintains a web site at FriendsDriftInn.com. She brags, “I live in a barn and cook up a storm. I am not a debutante. I have hot flashes. I garden in red high heels. I like fat rascals, tea, and bourbon. Welcome to Friends Drift Inn!” Or media: Kentucky Explorer magazine, for example, a Breathitt County publication, and Joel Brashear of Hyden who’s creating his own TV show after a stint with WYMT.

Our task should be to identify more people and projects like these, encourage them, and make them strong, primarily by teaching them how to be more successful entrepreneurs. The Kentucky Innovation Network is trying that already with moonshine. It’s arranged a free, one-day course at Moonshine University for aspiring shiners!

Our task should be to concentrate more on what the artisan economy in our area will look like and support that will all our resources: instead of Brew to Bikes, anyone like Homebrew to Hikes??

Johnathan Gay is the Director of the Kentucky Innovation Network office at Morehead State University. (www.kyinnovation.com) He provides free business consulting to entrepreneurs in East Kentucky.

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