By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
When 1,500 or more people gather in Pikeville on Monday to discuss ways to re-invent and expand the regional economy beyond coal, there will be some among them not yet ready to give up on coal.
The event is the SOAR Summit (Shaping Our Appalachian Future), called by Republican U.S. Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers who represents the region in Washington and Democratic Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear.
The impetus is the declining coal industry, 6,000 recent lost coal jobs and a rising level of despair and unemployment. There will be talk about encouraging entrepreneurs, tourism, building an internet broadband system that will attract and support “the jobs of the future.”
But some aren’t ready to surrender on coal altogether.
“I think the coal business will be around for a good while,” Rogers said. “But, nevertheless, we’ve got thousands of people laid off from the coal business that we’ve got to help find jobs in the immediate future while we look for ways to build an economy for the future.”
That’s part of the challenge — how does the state and region find work for so many unemployed miners and support services while looking for long-term solutions to diversify the regional economy?
Rogers said part of the key is focusing on a regional approach, rather than county by county. He understands education may be a long-term strategy but he’s looking for ways to get people back to work now.
Justin Maxson, president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, says it’s going to take both government and private investment. He can see long-term solutions, but it’s much harder to provide immediate relief.
Coal will remain a major part of the economy, according to the president of the Kentucky Coal Association.
“People need to know we’re still in the position to mine 40 million tons of coal in eastern Kentucky,” said Bill Bissett. “Coal mining will continue in eastern Kentucky; it’s just a matter of to what extent.”
State Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville, has long defended coal and its importance to the region. But she’s also stood out from some of her fellow coal-region lawmakers by saying it’s time to look beyond coal as the sole economic driver of the region.
“There’s still a need for coal. People will need coal in the future,” said Combs who will attend Monday’s summit at the East Kentucky Expo Center. “But it can’t any longer be the be-all, the end-all; there have to be other options.”
Bob Terrell, a retired businessman and author from Corbin, agrees.
“I am not against coal products if they are mined safely, don’t harm our air and water and provide reasonable wages and benefits,” Terrell said. “But coal must be part of a balanced economic development plan. Coal cannot be the only game in town. Balance is critical.”
Maxson and Stephanie McSpirit, an Eastern Kentucky University professor of sociology, want more of the taxes levied on coal to go back to the region with an emphasis on economic diversification and infrastructure.
McSpirit points out that only half of the money goes back to coal producing counties, while the other half is kept by Frankfort. Too little of what goes back to eastern Kentucky actually goes to economic development in the smaller communities where most of the coal is mined. And Kentucky’s 4.5 percent tax is less than taxes in western coal-producing states which have used the severance tax monies to bolster the coal regions in their states.
Maxson proposes an investment fund seeded by coal severance money which can be used to develop future economic development and diversification.
Few believe the future has no place for coal — but they realize the future won’t be determined solely by King Coal that once ruled the region.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.