Going into the recent SOAR Summit in Pikeville it seemed the general consensus was guarded optimism at best; and downright hostile opposition to the merest notion on the other extreme. The opening plenary and the initial sessions were very positive and encouraging. I was especially inspired—as were others—by the story of Jenn Noble, a young lady from Hazard, who went against the grain and convention and opened an art and music friendly café and bakery in her hometown. We need more of that.
My silent pessimism was that the whole affair would be a big wailing wall gathering to bemoan the War on Coal (and from what I heard that was a common perception). It definitely didn’t seem to start out that way. And it continued not to seem that way through lunch. Oh, there were the occasional reference to coal and the loss of coal jobs. But it was tempered and balanced within the greater dialogue. I mean, you can’t sweep the loss of 6,000+ jobs over 21 months under the rug. It would be the rabid, sociopathic elephant in the room at that point; and rightfully so.
Forgive me in advance; I’m really bad remembering conversations and spoken presentations. I’m going to give you my gist of the summit, but in some instances I can’t remember who said a certain thing. Where I remember I will give proper attribution.
Topics that came up repeatedly were the brain drain, building a tourism economy (but let’s not put all our eggs in one basket coal-lovers insist), broadband internet access for the region, better roads, educational opportunities, and branding the region. I’m going to try and break these down and give you my perspective. Who am I? I’m a Powell County native. I’ve lived 27 of my 40 years in Powell County. My parents are both from Powell County. All of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins lived here when I was growing up. Powell County is located on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau. It’s technically part of the Appalachian Region as identified by the Appalachian Regional Commission.
We’re not a coal producing county. I would venture to say we have few people who are currently coal miners or who have been coal miners. We’re a little closer to the industrial parks of Winchester and Mount Sterling than the coal mines. We are close to the Big Sinking Oil Field in Lee County. My maternal grandfather worked in the oil fields until cancer weakened him into an early retirement and then an early grave. Oil was the flash-in-the-pan wealth of my hometown. At the turn of the 19th Century Powell County was one of the largest lumber producing places in the world. Clay City was essentially a massive sawmill. Now it’s a bedroom community in a floodplain. Neither wood nor oil is going to return it to its former prosperity now. Where do we go from here?
The Mountain Parkway came through in the 1960s. That, along with the oil “boom” to the east led to a drastic increase in population. Like I said, it was a flash in the pan. Now we’re a brain farm for other places. All our youth and talent slips away in the night; some dream of coming back once they’ve made it somewhere else, and some are adamant they’ll never return. Reality blurs the lines between the groups into obscurity. Too many don’t come back.
To our west, shared with Menifee and Wolfe Counties, is the Red River Gorge Geological Area. Simply referred to as “the Gorge” by most locals, it encompasses one of two wilderness areas in Kentucky—the Clifty Wilderness—and it is a part of the much larger Daniel Boone National Forest. It’s our local tourist attraction. And we’ve utterly failed at capturing the tourist dollar that would be willingly spent if we only had a little vision and initiative to do so. I’m afraid this particular flavor of Appalachian Fatalism is widespread throughout the region. Branding the region came up, but unfortunately I fear this could drastically backfire. We’re only as good as our marketing specialists after all. And as long as we keep putting people from the industrial boards, real estate, and the financial players I our communities on or tourism boards in lieu of people who actually understand the natural resources and how visitors want to experience them I think we’re going to fail miserably as tourist destinations. When there are no rock climbers, backpackers, and mountain bikers on the tourism commission how can they make any kind of informed decisions on how to develop those kinds of activities?
I can remember the day (and only because it was within the last few months) when 4G came to Powell County. We still don’t have county-wide high speed internet. While my own access at home is typically acceptable (we can watch Netflickers) it’s still subpar to what we’ve grown accustomed to at school and work. Cell service is still spotty at best in the western end of the county. Some places don’t have internet access at all, much less access to high speed. This is something that is crucial to improving economic conditions in the region. It’s the one thing I think almost everyone can agree on.
I’m a transportation planner, but I don’t believe that widening a road or building a road is the answer to any of our problems. I think we can be more creative in our solutions and find acceptable paths to success that don’t necessarily involve dumping a whole lot of asphalt all over the landscape. We’re smart people. We can figure this out. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail in this post about the Mountain Parkway because I intend to give it a much more in depth thrashing tomorrow. Roads grew as a topic over the course of the day. As I could easily anticipate, multimodal choices got little attention and pedestrian infrastructure got almost none. I managed to throw in a blurb during the Infrastructure breakout session, but other than me and a couple of other people no one really talked about the fact that we’re all pedestrian at some point.
Of course education was, as it always is, a hot button topic. Better secondary, better adult education, better educational philosophies, better vocational training, better, better, better, blabber, blabber, blabber. I agree. It all needs to be better. But as was expressed very early on by Congressman Hal Rogers talking about “boomerangs” of which I am one: “Boomerangs are important, but they need a reason to come home.” The reason boomerangs—those of us who could be “brain drainers” but decide to go back home—are important is for that very reason Mandy and I chose to move away almost six years ago: perspective. Boomerangs bring back fresh ideas, fresh perspective, and a new filter for looking at their hometowns. The downfall is we often get called out as know-it-alls or little better than raw outsiders because we chose to move away.
You can go elsewhere and get an education, and in fact, that is a very good way to obtain an education formal or not. It’s not the only way or even the best way. It’s just a good way. It was away where I learned everything I know about the way the wide world functions. I learned land use, transportation, energy consumption, economics, and a deep and abiding love for the place I call home. If I’d stayed in my hometown without having gone other places I am fairly certain I would have grown to resent or even hate it. I don’t think I could have seen the potential I see in it now if I’d never looked longingly back down the road toward home.
Toward the end of the breakout session I attended the victim mentality of some came out. Someone shared the idea of Eastern Kentucky being the recipient of a program similar to BRAC (Base Realignment And Closure) where the Federal government offers aid to communities where military bases are closed. The rationale for an EKY type program was because “the Federal government has made a decision to disrupt our way of life…this War on Coal.”
Of course there was no talk of the numerous decisions by the region and its inhabitants to rely 100% on coal as an economic driver for their lives. There was no talk of the decisions to fight any talk of change or reducing that dependence on coal. There was no talk of the decisions to support the exploitive coal companies to the detriment of the communities, environment and culture of Appalachian Kentucky. No, coal isn’t the underlying culture. There was a strong culture in Eastern Kentucky long before coal was king and coal and its friends have done their best to destroy that culture. That is the culture my people share with the rest of Eastern Kentucky.
One thing that truly bothered me about those who were crying loudest about the so-called War on Coal is that they completely ignored that there are non-coal producing counties and non-supportive counties in the Appalachian region of Kentucky. And those counties are also poor and are looking for answers. One out of work coal miner talked about a rescue program for out-of-work miners as if coal miners were the noblest creatures to walk upon the face of the earth. A society that romanticizes a destructive industry has some pretty significant and foundational problems. Other people need help too.
An article I read on Wednesday mentioned a man who had worked in the coal mines making $25/hr, but after he lost his job he wasn’t going to be able to keep up with his monthly debt of $2,500. He bemoaned the fact that he couldn’t afford all of his vehicles. His standard of living had been artificially elevated by an unsustainable career position. Mining is a chasing after wealth. It goes against the fundamental Christian teachings that are so prevalent in the region: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matt. 16:26 ESV) But the Christian faith has been hijacked by Right-wing wealth seekers to garner a voting base. The nobility of Jesus’ teachings have been defiled in the name of throwing up a Walmart on a reclaimed strip mine. Spend, and ye shall be free.
Here’s what I’ve avoided saying for a long time: when you choose to be employed in an unsustainable industry or trade and it goes into decline you own some of the responsibility for having chosen an unsustainable path. Having expected society to protect you from all risk because you wanted to do a certain thing is an unreasonable expectation to begin with. But having that expectation in an unsustainable career is even more unreasonable.
For now coal does keep a lot of the lights on. And for many of us if we don’t like coal it does mean not using electricity, or at the very least reducing our dependence on 24 hour a day electricity all throughout our homes and lives, but being so wired is a relatively new phenomenon in human history. Perhaps it will be looked upon as a failed experiment in the future. Who are we to imagine that we are somehow more deserving of humanity’s entire endowment of fossil fuels to prop up the necessities our fathers (in a broad sense) considered luxuries?
There are non-coal counties in Eastern Kentucky too. There are people other than coal miners that are unemployed, underemployed, or unemployable.
Rabbit hole: I also read an article just before SOAR on “conservatives” trying to penalize people who want to put in solar panels, painting them as free riders in the system. The accusation is that private citizens generating solar energy and feeding it back into the grid have not paid for the infrastructure they’re benefiting from. But here’s how I see it:
One good example of free riders are those who take free coffee from the office coffee pot when there is a coffee club in place, usually $1 a month, for employees to contribute and receive the benefit of coffee. Private solar generators are like the person who brews coffee at home in their own coffee pot and takes it to work. When they brew too much coffee, more than they can drink, they pour it into the office pot for others to use and they get a kickback from the office pool of money (or maybe everyone agreed if they ever needed coffee they didn’t have to pay extra because of the frequent contributions). Right, they didn’t pay for the coffee pot, but they did contribute positively to the system and potentially benefited from it as opposed to just being a consumer in the system. They also became a co-producer. Co-producers are not free riders.
Okay, I’ve winded long. Let’s wrap this up…
Before the summit: guarded optimism.
After the summit: guarded optimism.
And here are selected tweets from during and after the summit by myself and others:
Installing solar doesn't take miners jobs, stop focus on differences between friends of coal and treehuggers - gets applause
#SOARSummit In the next 10years $12B will transfer out of EastKY chiefly because parents will pass assets on to children living elsewhere.
How can eastern Kentucky grow a thriving local food movement when strip-mining is poisoning all our lands and streams?
Microsoft employee Audrey Sniezek moved to EKY for world class sandstone climbing now teaches CS to high schoolers #SOARsummit #climbing
Sertichs: it's ok that some young ppl leave after high school, but need a reason to return. #soar #soarsummit
#SOARSummit There are non-coal counties in eastern Kentucky too.
#SOARSummit United we stand; divided we fall.
#SOARSummit Freedom is choice, and that includes choice of mode of transportation.
How do we keep young people in EKY? Young people in audience say #diversity, #innovation, healthy communities and environment #SOARSummit
"I believe if we can do anything, we can do it anywhere,"@loveaninfp at #SOARSummit on the importance of arts and culture in #EKY
Art, culture, passion, community, sustainability, entrepreneurship, life-long learning & education--key themes from youth @ #SOARSummit.
My community needed me more than NYC need me, so I went home. Jen Noble on youth panel at #soarsummit
Youth panel @jennnoble people said that the@treehousecafe wouldn't work bc its different. But that is what we need #soarsummit
There’s nothing wrong with Eastern Kentucky that we can’t fix with what’s right with Eastern Kentucky. Speaker Greg Stumbo #SOARSummit
#soarsummit Not looking at paving the road where there are 35 votes but how we can create 35 job. Sen Pres Robert Stivers
#soarsummit It's our ambition that we stop this cruel brain drain. Congressman Rogers
#soarsummit they say necessity is the mother of invention. You and I are here to invent today. Congressman Rogers