A large group of Letcher County residents attended a community meeting last week at Pine Mountain Grill in Whitesburg to discuss possibilities for moving Letcher County forward as part of SOAR (Save Our Appalachian Region).
SOAR will work in conjunction with the federal Promise Zone initiative to attempt to address the endemic unemployment that has plagued the region, particularly in light of the collapse of the eastern Kentucky coal industry. The session was facilitated by Lori Garkovich of the University of Kentucky Community and Leadership Development Department.
The loss of coal jobs was one topic many people included in their list of challenges for the region and while an increase in jobs was a priority, there were few solid suggestions as to how to make that happen directly. However, a number of suggestions were introduced that could help to lead to an atmosphere that would be more conducive to attracting potential employers.
Infrastructure was one subject that was seen as a challenge and opportunity as well, since the current infrastructure situation in Letcher County is something of a mixed bag. The Letcher County Water and Sewer District, working with the Letcher County Fiscal Court and state agencies, has made tremendous strides in making treated water available to Letcher County residents, but the county still lags well behind in sewer service, which is generally limited to the city areas of Jenkins, Whitesburg, and Fleming-Neon. Efforts to provide sewer service to Craft’s Colly are underway, but at present, funding for sewer lines is difficult to come by.
Broadband Internet service was another challenge that could provide a good deal of opportunity. At present, the telephone companies offer DSL Internet and several cable TV services offer cable broadband service. However, some parts of the county are still limited to dial-up Internet, which lacks the capacity for much in the way of business-related use. Lagina Adams, who works with Letcher County Public Libraries, told the gathering that while the Harry M. Caudill Library in Whitesburg has relatively fast broadband, the connections at some of the other libraries aren’t nearly as fast and sometimes it is diffi cult to transmit large files between libraries. She said that regional access to highspeed broadband would be a definite plus.
Low electricity rates are usually listed as a positive for the area and Kentucky in general, but one audience member said that while electricity rates are low, the poor quality of many of the region’s buildings tends to drive costs up. Housing in general was seen as another challenge, and the lack of available housing was mentioned as a possible detriment to increasing the economic base. Mark Kidd said he would also like to see more coordinated businessto business services and an increase in mentorship for young entrepreneurs.
Several people mentioned stereotyping and low expectations, and said the perception that the area is mostly populated by backward and poorly educated people has caused problems. The “brain drain” that occurs as young people leave the county in search of a better life was also brought up, as well as education. However, William Reed Collins, a local pharmacist, told the audience he had grown up in Whitesburg but graduated from high school in Louisville. Collins said that there were a good many more students who graduated from college and pursued professional careers in what would have been his graduating class at Whitesburg than there were in his much larger graduating class in Louisville. Collins also said that Letcher County has a large and at present underemployed surplus of highly skilled industrial workers such as equipment operators, who have been laid off from coal jobs.
Garkovich asked the audience to envision what they wanted Letcher County to be in 25 years and the response was encouraging and positive. Valerie Horn, coordinator of Grow Appalachia and Appal- TREE project director at Community Farm Alliance, said she would like to see a physically and mentally healthier county overall. Other respondents agreed that health was important as well as a younger demographic, that would come from more young people staying in the area. Diversity in the economy and in energy sources was also mentioned, as were sustainability in agriculture, forestry, and energy production. Others said they would like to see improvements in public transportation, additional hotels and motels, a four-year college, business incubators, a cleaner county, and the completion of the long planned county airport.
The meeting closed with a number of individuals signing up for a future session to form a committee that would concentrate on moving the county into an advantageous position for the SOAR project.