Friday, February 28

If the Road Was a Song

As I attempted to clean up this post to get it out to you, after sitting dormant for a few weeks in my unpublished folder, I decided to throw a little technology at the problem and created a GIS map showing the Mountain Parkway corridor and the percentage of people below poverty level in Census Block Groups along the corridor.  The result was interesting, but I didn’t want to rewrite the whole post to incorporate my educated guesses as to what the map meant.  I have included it at the end of the post for your viewing enjoyment.

The Mountain Parkway was built as a tool for economic development for Eastern Kentucky fifty years ago.  Before it was built there were really no good roads into Eastern Kentuckyfrom the north or west.  I’ve heard a lot of anecdotal accounts from people of my parents’ generation about trips that take a half hour today taking an hour or more.  Eastern Kentucky was cut off from the rest of the state by a lack of good roads.  Roadway standards at the time were much different than they are today, and the Mountain Parkway doesn’t even meet a modern standard.  It has significantly reduced travel times in certain parts of the region.

You’ve heard the talk now to extend the four lane section beyond Campton again for economic development.  But, as one articlesuggested, why not look to the communities—Clay City, Stanton, Slade, Pine Ridge, and Campton—that already benefit from four lanes of pavement to see how the road has increased economic benefit to the region?  It seems to me that some people think the Midas touch of fresh asphalt will leapfrog over Powell and Wolfe Countiesand coat everything in Eastern Kentucky with a thin veneer of glittering gold.

KY 114 (extension of the Parkway)
between Salyersville and Prestonsburg

I’m not sure what, in combination with a wider road, they think is going to generate wealth beyond the current terminus of four-lane glory in the region.  The land has been logged out, relogged, and effectively coaled out from a human justice perspective.  There’s not good flat land for industry.  The region would have to import goods to add value.  It just doesn’t make good economic sense considering that we don’t have an already robust transportation system to move those goods. 

Industrial potential isn’t a reality.  We don’t have hydropower to power factories like the Pacific Northwest did during WWII or the Tennessee Valley had in the post-war years. 

Tourism becomes the panacea as far as everyone is concerned.  But what I see is that the tourism industry—Big Tourism as I’m going to refer to it henceforth, that’s what it’s going to become—will not solve the region’s problems.  We don’t need big retail outlet malls.  We don’t need a couple dozen Gatlinburgs to satisfy the shopping urges of well-to-do northerners.  They can shop at Walmart in their own communities if they want cheap Chinese-made crap. 

If you think going to Gatlinburg to shop for your vacation, at the foot of the Great Smokey Mountains, is an authentic experience then there’s something deeply wrong with your perspective.  People were going to visit the Smokies because of its natural grandeur and business people saw there was a need.  Visitors needed something to do at night when they couldn’t be hiking in the mountains or driving to scenic overlooks.  Enter the outlet mall.  And as Americans were evolving into the bean bag shaped blobs that we’ve become we gladly embraced this new paradigm of vacation destinations because we’re just fine and dandy with getting cheap crap handed to use through the windows of our cars.

Yay, we went to the Smokies.

My fear is that this is exactly what will happen in Eastern Kentuckyas the talk of building a tourism industry ramps up.  The difference is that Eastern Kentucky doesn’t have quite the grandeur that the Great Smokey Mountains do.  Or other places in the east.  Pine Mountain? Yes.  Cumberland Gaparea? Yes.  Red River Gorge? Sure.  The Cumberland Plateau is kinda mundane.  You’ve seen one part of it you’ve seen the rest of it.  We’ve got real mountains in the Southeast.  Or, we did until we blew them up and sent them west on trains, barges, and in coal trucks to be converted into gold for someone else to polish.

So what fills the economic gaps?  We need tourism!  Build an outlet mall!

KY 114 from the Dawkins Line Rail Trail

The problem is our tourism commissions aren’t made up of people who are outdoor enthusiasts.  Rock climbers, cyclists, long-distance backpackers…they’re not the ones who sit on the local tourism boards.  Its bankers, cabin owners, real estate agents…but not the people who have an interest in seeing sustainable activities developed in rural areas in a responsible and respectable manner.  People who become interested in these boards are those who would exploit the local resources to make a little money for themselves.  Small town corruption has a stranglehold on Eastern Kentucky.

They’re people who want to erect “attractions” but who don’t care about preserving the existing landscape or creating socially just environments.  They love easy money and the romanticized ideal of a beautiful natural area.  They’re the kind of people who put out brochures that say “Welcome to Kentucky’s Rocky Mountains.”  They cheapen not only the actual Rocky Mountains with that assertion, but also the local landscape by trying to elevate it to something it’s not.  There’s no connection between the Cumberland Plateau and the Rocky Mountain range.  People see through the cheap marketing scheme.  If it’s not an authentic experience people lose interest real fast. 

The people who are charged with development don’t know jack about the true sustainable potential of the areas they represent.  They look at other areas that have developed successful tourism-based environments and they don’t understand the first thing about how those places created the ambiance and atmosphere that draws visitors to their area.  They don’t have a clue because they lack imagination and respect for the local culture.

They don't understand what makes the area beautiful, and in their ignorance they're a threat to the very things that make the place attractive.  Because they don't seek to understand they can never recreate or preserve that which has abiding value.

Those are the same people who think it’s quaint that people come to their area to rock climb from all over the world, but they don’t do the first thing to try and understand what truly interests the visitors or what their needs might be visiting an area away from their homes.  When there’s no high speed internet, it’s a dry county, there are poor development regulations, there’s no local recreational community, and the atmosphere is not friendly to “Buckeyes” then all of those tourism dollars choose to go somewhere else.

A quick aside: tourism commissions have the potential to become as exploitative as Big Coal.  We must guard against that mentality as we try to develop a new economy in Eastern Kentucky.  I don’t believe development should focus on the concentration of wealth, but in improving the quality of life for as many people as possible.  And to be clear, I don’t think “wealth” automatically equates to “quality of life.”

Recently I was perusing my town’s comprehensive plan—some light reading—and it hit me square in the chest.  We have one hotel.  But if you stay in that hotel there really aren’t good sidewalks to get you from the hotel to the restaurants around town.  And actually, unless you want fast food you don’t have many cuisinal choices.  And there are no museums, theaters, coffee shops, ice cream shops or the like to walk to.  Even if there were adequate hotels in the Nada/Slade area (there are tons of vacation cabins) there is NO NIGHT LIFE.  You can hike through the day, but at night you’re stuck in your cabin or tent awaiting the sunrise.  Yep, we roll up the sidewalks at 9pm sharp through the summer.

We don’t do much to attract artists, writers, photographers, and musicians.  There are a few, but not a lot.  We need more people who create culture and beauty.  We need people with a vision beyond what lies just under the surface of the earth that can be easily dug up and traded for fool’s gold.  We need local destinations beyond the post office, grocery store, bank and suboxyclean clinic.

Twenty years ago we should have already been developing a sustainable plan for a tourism economy.  Fifty years ago people were fighting to save the Red River Gorge because of its inherent value and so it could be enjoyed for generations to come.  It’s a resource that’s there for us to responsibly use as an economic tool. 

We’re smart people.  We can figure this out.

Recently I met with the Judge-Exec for the county I live in.  He was surprised to learn that in 2006 a group took grant money and completed a Tourism and Marketing Plan for the county.  He was very interested in seeing it, but had never been aware of its existence.  In his defense, he has been doing a lot to proactively create tourism opportunity, but it’s an uphill battle.  We can figure this out, but sometimes it seems like it might take a millennia.

The Mountain Parkway has been great for the region. It has been a bridge from the East Kentucky Coal Fields to the Bluegrass and beyond. Unfortunately it has also enslaved us to itself. Without the road we are lost. We depend on it so much that talk of a toll puts the fear of God in us. I’ll have to pay a toll every day? How will I get to work? How will I be inconvenienced?

And in trying to answer those questions I realize once again that without the road we’re isolated by time and the cost of fossil fuels. There are no viable alternatives for connectivity. To participate in even the regional economy we need the road for efficiency of movement. And yet it has not brought the prosperity once promised. I’m convinced without a drastic change of thinking in Eastern Kentucky that adding a couple of lanes, flattening some hills, and straightening some curves won’t do much to improve the stagnated economies of the communities that overlook the Mountain Parkway.


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