Coal will always help keep the lights on, but its days as a major employer in the Appalachian Region are quickly dwindling.
With that realism in mind, government and business leaders in Kentucky are in the process of discussing ideas and formulating plans for a future economy that does not rely as much on coal for jobs and tax revenue.
“For the longest time our primary jobs have been in coal. Now we have to diversify,” Brad Hall, co-chair of the Business Recruitment committee of the SOAR (Save Our Appalachian Region) initiative, said Thursday during a meeting at the Harlan Center. “The coal industry is changing. It is not the jobs driver it was 20 years ago, and probably never will be again. We have to develop new opportunities.”
During SOAR’s “Listening Tour” held here Thursday, community members had a chance to express their thoughts and ideas on what would be best for the region’s economic future.
The session was conducted by Hall, Manager of External Affairs for Kentucky Power Company, and Rodney Hitch, Manager of Economic Development for East Kentucky Power Cooperative. Both serve as co-chairs of the Business Recruitment Committee.
“Our focus is to try and help communities recruit new business, retain and expand existing businesses, and improve economic development,” Hall said.
A lack of flat land in eastern Kentucky makes it difficult to attract primary, mainly manufacturing, jobs to the area, Hall indicated, so one of the main focuses should be on recruiting secondary jobs, those in the retail and service sectors.
Hitch said 80 percent of the state’s new jobs and wealth come from businesses already located here.
“We need to work to make sure we are doing all we can to address the needs of the businesses we have in east Kentucky and provide assistance if they need help expanding,” Hitch said.
“Growing our own will make the biggest difference,” Hall added.
Aimee Blanton, president of the Harlan County Chamber of Commerce, said, “One of the biggest obstacles is our roads. We need better roads to get into Harlan and to ship freight out. Until we have that, it is pretty difficult to get manufacturing here.”
Incentives and tax breaks as a means of recruiting business to the community was urged during the meeting, as was improved broadband and wireless service and finding ways to keep young people here to stop the “brain drain.”
Other ideas included:
• Developing a regional strategy and working in partnership with other counties on economic development.
• Retaining the area’s rail service by diversifying what is transported to include non-coal items.
• Utilizing the assets already available in the region to attract new business – the people, the mountains and rivers. “Miners are highly skilled workers and can easily be retained to do other things,” Hall said.
• New infrastructure and improvements to existing infrastructure.
One of the main suggestions pushed by Hall was the hiring of a business recruiter, either at the county level or in conjuncture with nearby counties.
“At the end of the day SOAR will be providing some great ideas and some resources, but it will be up to the communities within eastern Kentucky to pave the way forward for themselves,” Hall said.
He urged those in attendance to work toward creating a coalition for economic development in Harlan County.