The Harlan Fiscal Court is looking for options after Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College recently informed the county the college will no longer operate the Benham Schoolhouse Inn and Portal 31 after June 30.
Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley brought the topic up to the court during a meeting on Tuesday.
“For the last several years, the college has maintained, operated and staffed the Benham Inn and Portal 31,” Mosley said. “The state had it prior to that, they turned it back over to the county and then on to the college…the college has been maintaining it ever since.”
According to a press release, SKCTC President Dr. Lynn Moore recently sent a letter to Mosley about the future of the two attractions. Both entities, while owned by the county, are currently being financially supported, staffed and managed by the college. Moore said in her letter to Mosley that due to decreasing financial support from the state of Kentucky along with shrinking college resources, the college is unable to continue to support and staff both venues.
Mosley told the court at one point an agreement had been made between the college and the county concerning the properties.
“The only agreement I can find…was one signed in 1998 between the college and former Judge-Executive Delzinna Belcher,” Mosley explained. “That agreement went until 2023. But, it also included the Benham Inn, the Sleepy Hollow Golf Course and the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum.”
Mosley said the college owns the Coal Mining Museum building and has been operating it for some time.
“The golf course transitioned back to the county at least 15 years ago,” Mosley said. “It is operated by a board the county government appoints. So, two of the three things that are in that agreement are null and void, so I feel like the agreement essentially doesn’t have a leg to stand on.”
Mosley said the county will have to determine what happens with the properties after the college ceases to operate them.
“I can tell you from a personal standpoint, those two attractions mean a lot to me,” Mosley said. “Portal 31 tells the history of coal mining. It tells the story of our heritage and what miners went through years ago. When people came here from overseas to work for U.S. Steel, that’s where they went.”
Mosley said Portal 31 is the only underground exhibition tour in the state.
“I think it could be operated in a way that it could at least break even,” Mosley said. “As far as the Benham Inn is concerned, I think there’s potential with that as well.”
Magistrate David Kennedy said approximately three to four million dollars has been put into those projects in the last 20 years.
“In the Tri-City area, we’ve made great strides in developing tourism,” Kennedy said. “Portal 31, to the best of my knowledge, operated in the black last year…after looking at the financial statements on the Benham Inn, I think it can be brought into the black also.”
Kennedy said the Benham Schoolhouse Inn is on the National Registry of Historic Buildings.
Mosley stated he has been looking at financial information provided by the college as well as other information pertaining to the attractions.
“I want to put together some type of strategy to try to keep those going,” Mosley said. “But, I don’t want to do it if it’s going to be a burden on the taxpayers of Harlan County…our people are taxed enough. We do not need to further burden them with things that we simply want.”
The court took no action at this time, but Mosley said he hoped to have a recommendation by the next fiscal court meeting.
“I feel confident that we can make this where it’s not a burden on the taxpayers — with proper management and some changes — we can make this happen,” Kennedy said. “It’s vital, we’ve got to make it happen, and I feel confident that we will.”
Reach Joe P. Asher at 606-909-4132 or on Twitter @joe_hde