We’ve come to another new year, and we sincerely hope that our elected leaders have paid attention to what happened during the last one.
Locally, we saw our unemployment increase by three percentage points after our coal industry shed hundreds of jobs. The economy of Eastern Kentucky, which depends largely on the coal industry, can little afford to lose these jobs, especially when there’s little else to pick up the slack.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that coal production in the third quarter of 2012 was down nearly 25 million tons from the previous year, and nearly 40 million tons from the same time period in 2008. The EIA also predicts that natural gas production will increase, while the use of renewable energy sources will outpace growth in the use of fossil fuels.
None of this paints a rosy picture for the coal industry, and consequently for Eastern Kentucky’s economic future.
But there does seem to be a bright spot. A quick look at Pike County, Kentucky’s largest county, shows us that even in coal-rich Eastern Kentucky there is room for diversity. In addition to being the state’s largest county, Pike County also produces more coal than any other, and as a result of the current downturn has also lost many jobs. But despite this loss, the county’s unemployment figures remain below double digits.
Granted, Pike County has flirted with 10 percent unemployment and joblessness increased roughly 2 percentage points in the past year, but other coal counties, like Perry County, have gone well beyond that figure in the same time period.
So, what does Pike County have that some other coal counties do not? In a word, more diversity.
In 2010, the latest figures available from the state, Pike County had more than 4,000 mining jobs, but the county also had nearly 3,700 in retail, along with healthy numbers when compared to other counties in several other sectors, including construction.
With so many jobs tied up in the coal industry Pike County stands to lose much more, but it seems they are also better suited than their neighbors to absorb some of those losses, and perhaps even attract something to fill the void.
What we draw from this is that if Pike County can build a burgeoning economy that is not wholly dependent on the coal industry, we think it’s possible in some of our other counties. Perry County, for instance, is better suited to follow that lead than most. We have a county government untethered to long-term indebtedness. We have a county seat with a college and flagship hospital currently undergoing an expansion. We have an historic downtown with a lot of potential.
And most of all, like other counties in our region, we have acres upon acres of flat land created by surface mining just waiting for development, be it agriculture, tourism, or some other industry not yet thought of.
What we’re saying is that there’s potential, and a proven model, and all we need is the willingness to overcome stereotypes and statistics and we can build a better economy, and in turn a better future for our children. It’ll take some work, that’s for sure, but it will be well worth it.
— The Hazard Herald