Citing the “current state of our local economy and the war on coal,” the Whitesburg Lions Club will not hold its annual radio auction for the first time in more than 50 years.
The Lions Club has held the radio auction each fall since 1963 as a way of raising funds to buy eyeglasses for underprivileged children. After the first several auctions were held in late summer on WTCW-AM in Whitesburg, the auctions were eventually moved to the first week in December.
In order to conduct the auction, the Lions Club has been dependent on donations of merchandise from Letcher County businesses. During evening airtime donated by WTCW — and later its more powerful FM sister station, WXKQ — club members would share time behind the microphone to describe the donated merchandise, after which listeners could call in and bid on any of the items that appealed to them, occasionally at a huge savings but more often at well above the listed retail price.
“As many of you know, for the past several decades the Whitesburg Lions Club has held its annual Christmas Radio Auction during the first week of December on WTCWWXKQ,” Lions Club President Edison G. Banks II explained in a letter to the editor of The Mountain Eagle this week. “Over the past year, and in particular the past few months, many of our local businesses have been forced to permanently close their doors, and many of the faithful supporters and friends of the Whitesburg Lions Club have permanently lost their jobs.”
As is the case with most other coal producing counties in eastern Kentucky and Central Appalachia, Letcher County has fallen on hard times economically since 2011, when the combination of utilities switching to cheaper natural gas for fuel, resource depletion caused by more than 100 years of mining, and tougher environmental rules enacted by President Barack Obama and the federal Environmental Protection Agency combined to cause the loss of more than 2,000 toppaying mining and support jobs in Letcher alone.
The Associated Press reported recently that in eastern Kentucky, coal output fell by nearly 5 percent to 37.5 million tons in 2014, the lowest haul since 1961. Eastern Kentucky production is down by 71.4 percent since peak production of 131 million tons in 1990.
Mining jobs were nearly cut in half in less than a decade, from 14,373 in 2008 to 7,242 in 2014 in the eastern Kentucky coalfields, according to industry statistics cited by the AP.
“We’ve mined the coal for 115 years,” former Kentucky Governor Paul Patton, once a leading coal operator in neighboring Pike County told The Associated Press recently. “We’ve mined the good coal. Our coal is very expensive to mine. There is cheaper coal coming in from the Midwest and from the West. There is natural gas that is absolutely cheaper than coal.”
In his letter to The Eagle, Banks, the longtime commonwealth’s attorney for the Letcher Circuit, points out that coal’s decline is also threatening the services offered by Letcher County’s government, which has lost more than $1 million annually in coal severance taxes.
“There is even much discussion of the curtailment of many government services and of the layoff of county government employees, all as a result of the current state of our local economy and the war on coal,” Banks said.
The Whitesburg Lions Club was formed in April 1945 and included 21 members at the time. Since growing to more than 42 members in the 1960s, Banks said the club’s membership has fallen to 20 today.
According to Banks, the proceeds from the annual auction enabled the Lions Club to purchase eyeglasses for between 50 and 60 needy people each year, mostly children. Banks said money raised during the auctions would have also funded several $500 college scholarships to high school graduates from Letcher County Central High School and Jenkins High School, but that no student applied for the grants.
“We haven’t had a single applicant in the last three years,” Banks said.
Banks said the club’s members “didn’t take it lightly” when making the decision to cancel the auction this year.
“Businesses are having a really hard time and the people don’t have any money to bid,” he said.
Following is the complete text of the letter submitted by Banks:
“As many of you know, for the past several decades the Whitesburg Lions Club has held its annual Christmas Radio Auction during the first week of December on WTCW-WXKQ 103.9 The Bulldog.
“Throughout the years because of the generous donations of our local businesses of their merchandise, services, and cash, the Whitesburg Lions Club was able to raise the funding necessary through your bidding on and purchasing of these items from the annual Christmas Radio Auction to purchase hundreds of pairs of eyeglasses for both children and adults alike, fund two annual scholarships open to all graduating seniors of either the Letcher County Public School System or the Jenkins Independent School System, sponsor local students attending band camp, youth conferences and Trooper Island, purchase food baskets, as well as provide cash donations to our local food pantries.
“In addition, the generosity and support of the many friends of the Whitesburg Lions Club through their participation in the annual Christmas Radio Auction allowed the Whitesburg Lions Club to make Christmas a little merrier for the many young children whose names were taken from the Tree of Hope and for the Whitesburg Lions Club to sponsor a free Easter egg hunt that was open to every child in our area.
“Over the past year, and in particular the past few months, many of our local businesses have been forced to permanently close their doors and many of the faithful supporters and friends of the Whitesburg Lions Club have permanently lost their jobs. There is even much discussion of the curtailment of many government services and of the layoff of county government employees, all as a result of the current state of our local economy and the war on coal.
“It is therefore with much regret that the Whitesburg Lions Club has decided to postpone our annual radio auction until a later date when our local economy will hopefully be in a more healthy condition. The Whitesburg Lions Club will continue to sponsor as many of the many worthy causes as our remaining funding permits as these services are needed now more than perhaps ever in recent memory.
“Eyeglass applications remain available at the Williams Mountain Vision Center, the Eye Care Center, the Jenkins ARH Family Care and the Letcher County Commonwealth Attorney’s office. The Whitesburg Lions Club will continue to meet on the second and fourth Thursday of each month at 6:30 p.m., weather permitting, and anyone interested in learning more about Lionism may still contact Lion Alicia Cook at 832- 2172 or Lion Edison Banks at 633-8121 as well as any member of the Whitesburg Lions Club.”