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Hazard homecoming debacle hurts entire region

The highly problematic  “homecoming week” incident at Hazard High School last week could not have come at a worse time for an eastern Kentucky town trying to bolster its image and craft a winning post-coal transition narrative.

A recent City of Hazard tweet featuring photos of the town’s rousing Oktoberfest activities read, “Do. Not. Sleep. On. This. Town.” That burst of optimism came a few days before the local high school turned into a burlesque show, shifting people’s attention to Hazard for all the wrong reasons.

The homecoming week debacle is sad for many reasons, including because Hazard has worked hard to get people like me talking about the positive things happening there. I came to Hazard in July to talk about my book, “Twilight in Hazard: An Appalachian Reckoning,” which is a reflection on my years as the Courier Journal’s last Hazardbased correspondent.

My book is about eastern Kentucky as a whole, but because “Hazard” is in the title, it has received scrutiny from Hazard city officials who question why I didn’t write at greater length about the businesses that have recently opened on and around Main Street. They were also upset that I didn’t interview Hazard Mayor Donald “Happy” Mobelini for the book. In light of recent events, I’m glad that I didn’t.

Hindsight is 20/20 of course, but I was a bit wary of Mobelini. As we now know, Mobelini is not only mayor, he is also the Hazard High School principal who took part in tawdry homecoming week events.

In his role as principal, Mobelini oversees a 340-student high school with a private school air to it. The school has long-held traditions and a decent academic record.

Before the scandal broke, I mused about whether one person should pull double duty as mayor and principal. When power is concentrated in too few hands, abuse of that power is more likely to occur, I reasoned.

During my Hazard visit in July, I gave Mobelini a platform to tout his office’s recent accomplishments. More impressive than anything he said or showed me was the undeniable can-do spirit I sensed from the highly motivated professionals working to revitalize Hazard. This self-inflicted wound can only hurt those efforts.

I recently spoke to a former state economic development official who told me how difficult it is to woo new business to eastern Kentucky. Quality of life matters to CEOs. They look at everything that an area has to offer. Schools of course are on that list.

This is a time of major economic transition for Hazard and the region and there is little margin for error. Unfortunately, any CEO (especially one with school-aged kids) who hears about the Hazard homecoming week story is now going to be even less likely to set up shop in the area.

Republic of Hazard, as its officials cheekily refer to it, is not an island. And it should seek to be something more than a little kingdom.

Too many people in Hazard are blaming outside forces for the recent flood of bad publicity. It is parents from the rival county school district. It is the fun police. And of course it is the media who have descended on Hazard in droves.

Around a hundred people showed up in the rain last Thursday to support the beloved and now beleaguered Mobelini, who has been conspicuously silent about his role in what happened. By opting to let others do the talking for him, at least for now, he is not helping matters. Nor is Superintendent Sondra Combs who released a lukewarm condemnation of the incident and falsely denied anything like it had happened before.

In times such as these, wagons get circled. But such outspoken support of an event at which scantily clad male students gave Mobelini lap dances and female students dressed up as Hooter’s servers has a lot of people beyond Hazard city limits shaking their heads.

I would like to think that the people working diligently for Hazard know that the school incident and its aftermath are major blemishes on the town’s reputation. How the situation plays out will say a lot about whether Hazard is ready for the brighter future it says is already here.

Alan Maimon is the author of “ Twilight in Hazard: An Appalachian Reckoning” (Melville House, 2021). He was the Courier Journal’s Hazard-based eastern Kentucky reporter from 2000 to 2006. Source: The University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

Editor’s Note:

The City of Hazard was in the national spotlight last week after photos went viral of a Hazard High School homecoming tradition: the “Man Pageant,” in which male students dressed in lingerie gave simulated lap dances to seated school leaders. The incident, which brought much ridicule to the Appalachian region from talk radio hosts and social media commentators nationwide, “could not have come at a worse time,” writes Alan Maimon in an opinion piece for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

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