Letcher Countians may have a better recreation area and sizable tourist draw in the not too distant future.
At its June meeting, the Letcher County Fiscal Court approved a resolution of support to participate with the Letcher County Tourism Commission for a U.S. Land and Water Conservation Fund grant proposal. The funding would be used to finance an ambitious set of improvements to Fishpond Lake Park at Payne Gap.
Missy Matthews of the tourism commission presented an overview of the grant and the upgrade projects the commission plans to address. She said the grant allows for a minimum of $25,000 to a maximum of $250,000 in funding. The projects the commission plans will cost $386,634.20, of which the county will have to put up half. However, Matthews said the match can be done in-kind, which means that a direct cash match is not necessary. She listed donated items, county wages, county supplies, and volunteer labor as some things that can satisfy the requirements for the match.
To qualify before the deadline of May 31, the grant proposal has already been submitted. It will take one year from submission of the application to the actual beginning of construction. The funds will be administered through the Kentucky Department of Local Government, if the grant is awarded.
The projects the grant proposal addresses are upgrades designed to enhance the visitor experience in Fishpond. There will be improvements to restrooms already at the park, construction of a new bathhouse to serve visitors, and a new visitor’s center that will include supplies for campers and fishing supplies. Recreational vehicle sites will be enlarged and upgraded as well.
Other improvements will include new playgrounds for children, new grills at campsites and shelters, new overlooks, new firepits, and increased outside space at the RV campground. Matthews also said the commission wants to add several “tiny houses” for visitors to use as rental cabins, and it hopes to add one or two each year.
In response to a question concerning security, both Matthews and Judge/Executive Terry Adams agreed that security improvements will be necessary. Matthews suggested there may be a “host camper,” a person who stays at the park to assist campers and keep watch for vandals and troublemakers. She also said they would probably need a gate to limit access after dark to people who are actually using the park. She said the gate could have a keypad actuated lock and the code could be given to campers as they register. Several court members said that sometimes people fish late at night and Judge Adams said they could be provided with the codes as well.
In other business, the court discussed the possibility of hiring an economic development director for Letcher County. As part of a report by the court’s Economic Development Committee, Second District Magistrate Sherry Sexton made a motion to hire a director at a salary of $45,000 per year. Magistrates stressed that the director would have to have experience in economic development, but Bridget Back, who was attending the meeting as part of the tourism commission, told the court that it might be a good idea if court members met with Chuck Sexton of One East Kentucky. Back said she works at the East Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program (EKCEP) in Hazard. EKCEP is a non-profit workforce development agency that operates the Kentucky Career Center and works with One East Kentucky. Chuck Sexton is the president and CEO of One East Kentucky and works in economic development. Back said Chuck Sexton is an economic development professional and his job is to recruit business and industry to eastern Kentucky. She added that One East Kentucky already has the expertise, funding, connections, and regional backing necessary for developing a successful economy, while an economic development director for Letcher County would only have the resources of one county. The court members voted to table Sherry Sexton’s motion until they can meet with Chuck Sexton and discuss how One East Kentucky can help Letcher County address its economic needs. One Eastern Kentucky already represents the Gateway Business Park at Jenkins.
Gray Tomblin, commissioner of the state Department of Rural and Municipal Aid, addressed the meeting and told the court he was there to answer any questions it may have and to hear about the county’s needs. The Department of Rural and Municipal Aid oversees the Office of Local Programs and the Office of Rural and Secondary Roads as part of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.
Tomblin said he wanted to hear about infrastructure needs and he was particularly interested in hearing about the need for bridge upgrades. He said he had visited the Hancock Bridge at UZ and it is on a list for replacement. He said he has a list of the 1,000 worst bridges in Kentucky and Letcher County has several on it. Paxton Weddington, the Transportation Cabinet’s Bridge Manager for Letcher, Pike, and Knott counties, said Letcher County has other bridges in the design program for replacement and added that resurfacing work on US 119 from Highway 805 to the junction with US 23 at Jenkins is scheduled to begin soon. Construction on bridges on 805, at Georges Branch, and on Cowan Creek will begin in July and two more are scheduled for September.
Greg Copley of the University of Kentucky Center for Applied Energy Research also spoke to the court and proposed that it enter into an arrangement for an energy audit to determine possible savings on energy bills. He said the center can do a complete analysis and suggest measures to lower costs. However, the repairs and changes would probably involve a long-term loan, and Judge Adams said he is cautious about committing the county to longterm debt at this time. Adams said the work to upgrade lighting in the courthouse has already begun and Deputy Judge Jason Back said workers with Greg Hale LLC have already replaced all the outside lighting at the courthouse with lower-cost, long-lasting LED lighting. He said when the work was started, there were no working lights outside the courthouse.
The court members went into executive session to discuss litigation on right-of-way issues, but when they emerged, no action was taken. Letcher County Attorney Jamie Hatton suggested they allow Judge Adams to negotiate a solution to the problem. Adams also asked the court to consider a two percent raise for county employees; County Treasurer Doris Jean Frazier said the proposed raise could add $42,000 to the county budget and Adams said the county has the necessary funding. The court voted unanimously to approve the raise.
The court also voted unanimously to purchase a small dump truck from state surplus for $11,000. Adams said he has seen a video of the truck and the surplus manager told him it was a better truck than one the county recently purchased, which Adams said is performing well. He said if the court approved the request, he would send Jason Back, who also serves as county road foreman, to Frankfort to examine the truck and take a check to pay for it if he decides it is a good buy. Back also reported that county road workers have put down 75 tons of cold patch to fill pot holes in on county roads. Adams said they are doing the work to make sure the cold patch will set up and hold by cleaning the potholes out and letting them dry first.
Jailer Bert Slone reported that jail employees recently received a raise that was made possible after several senior employees retired, He said that freed up funds for lower-paid new employees to get a much-needed raise. Slone also gave a report on the Jail Commissary Fund. The commissary provides personal items and snack foods to inmates. As of May 31, the Jail Commissary Fund has a cash balance of $68,268.49.
Adams also said the mowing tractors the court recently purchased at state surplus are almost ready to go into use and soon mowing will be underway throughout the county. First District Magistrate Jack Banks praised Dustin Eversole for using his own tractor to cut weeds in Loggy Hollow. The court also voted to name Angelina Tidal and Linda Collins as trustees for the Board of Directors for the Letcher County Library System.
Because the budget for the Letcher County Health Department was not ready for the meeting, the court postponed receiving the budgets for special taxing districts in the county. The court also voted to place a plaque honoring Private First-Class Dennis Proffitt, U.S. Army Air Force, at mile point 16.74 of Rockhouse Creek.
Bank balances for county agencies as of May 31
• General Fund: $901.923.19
• Road and Bridge Fund: $648,495,56
• Jail Fund: $67,813,19
• LGEA Fund: $558,210.97
• Senior Citizens Fund: $228.39
• Forestry Fund: $18,364.20
Total of all funds: $2,195,036.10