I was born in the old Harlan hospital on Mound Street, March 30, 1940. Dr. Clark Bailey delivered me. I attended kindergarten, grade school and high school in Harlan. In 1958 I graduated from Harlan High School and started college at the University of Kentucky. Other than a two-year stint in Kingsport, Tennessee, I have lived in Lexington since 1958. But I have many, many fond memories of Harlan, and still have family and friends living there. I visit there frequently. I love Harlan, the beautiful mountains of eastern Kentucky, and the mountain people. No finer people are found anywhere.
But Harlan and Harlan County have a problem. The problem is economics. In the year I was born the population of Harlan County exceeded 80,000, and that of the city of Harlan exceeded 5,000. Today the county has less than 30,000 and the city less than 1,500 inhabitants. And these numbers drop daily. As I was growing up in Harlan the downtown was vibrant. Every available storefront was occupied. All businesses were doing well. I attended Harlan’s Polk Sallet Festival last month, and walked through downtown Harlan. Although the festival was super, well attended, and certainly an overwhelming success, I was saddened as I walked the streets and looked at all the closed businesses. Downtown Harlan is becoming a ghost town! Sad, sad. Very few businesses are still operating. The problem is economics.
Harlan and Harlan County have long depended on coal. The demand for coal is decreasing, the automation now used to mine it requires far fewer miners, and the regulations being promulgated by the government are forcing coal-fired power plants and other users to shut down. Unfortunately, the outlook for jobs in the coal industry is bleak. With the decreasing income from coal related jobs, the economy of Harlan County has plummeted. Sadly, the number one source of income now in Harlan County is government checks. This situation simply has to be reversed. Harlan County simply must set forth on a path that will lead to economic recovery.
I think it likely that everything I’ve said so far is well known to all residents in Harlan County. The question is, HOW can it proceed on a path that will lead to economic recovery?
I’m certainly not smart enough to provide that answer. But I would like to share a few thoughts on the subject.
In my opinion, the first step in the path to economic recovery would necessarily be to develop a VISION. This vision would be one that, if implemented, would definitely bring people (and therefore money) into Harlan County on a continuous basis. And that’s not easy, especially given that Harlan County lies about 75 miles from any major interstate highway. But nobody said it would be easy!
I’m going to give an example of a vision. I’m not proposing it, although I do happen to believe that it could be successful. I offer it just as something to think about.
The vision should not be constrained by things like money, location, who would be involved, etc. Certainly all those and many more important considerations would have to be addressed, but first should come the vision. Then, after the vision was adopted, all the other considerations would have to be addressed. And when that happened, then perhaps the original vision would have to be modified. But that would come later…first the vision.
My ‘strawman’ vision I’ll call The Harlan Appalachian Center. It consists of 30 shops located adjacent to each other as shown in the diagram. In the center of the area is what I call The Attraction, which consists of an aquarium, a zoo and a museum.
Ample parking is provided all around, as indicated. Each of the 30 shops would be original craft shops, e.g. quilts, photographs, art, ceramics, furniture, musical instruments, etc. A board would be selected that would approve each of the shops. In addition to selling their crafts, owners could give lectures on the craft, and perhaps workshops. An office would be located in the Center as shown in the diagram. From this office tours could be offered at various times during the day that would go to select places in the county, e.g. to the coal mining museum, to portal 19, to off road vehicle rides, to zip lines, etc. Small buses would be used to take participants on these tours. The Attraction, located centrally as shown, would offer each visitor a visit to the aquarium, the zoo and the museum. Visitors would pay a single admission price to visit all three.
To attract folks to operate the 30 craft shops I would propose offering them free rent and utilities for the first year. Thereafter they would pay an agreed-upon rent and utilities.
My idea for The Attraction came from The Science Center in Greensboro, North Carolina. It offers an aquarium, a zoo, and a museum for a single admission price of $12.50. When I visited there it was doing a booming business. I liked the concept, and think it could be a key to the success of the Harlan Appalachian Center.
That’s my vision. Lots and lots of details would have to be worked out in order for such a thing to become a reality. What would be the cost? Where would the funding come from, where would be the location, who would operate it, and all the details associated with building, e.g. an architect, development of the infrastructure, permits, etc.
My whole point in all this is simply that unless something like this gets underway Harlan and Harlan County will wilt away. And it doesn’t need another committee appointed to talk it to death. It needs ACTION! Someone needs to step up to the plate and get a vision adopted and start the process to make that vision a reality.
How about that Mayor Howard, Judge Mosley, Sen. Turner, Rep. Steele, Rep. Nelson, Governor Bevin, U.S. Rep. Rogers, U.S. Sen. McConnell and Paul? Will anyone step up to the plate for Harlan?
It’s something to think about…very, very seriously!
Dick Edwards is a native of Harlan, and retired from the University of Kentucky College of Engineering. Since his retirement he has written five adventure novels, The Anchor Cross Series, that are all based in Harlan. His books are available at Jewelcraft in Harlan, and online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.