HAZARD—After a massive decline in Eastern Kentucky’s economy in the last few years, a state group has decided to study the area and see if there is more potential in the region to help the hurting economy than many previously thought — and the results seem to be positive.
Eastern Kentucky has the potential to become an attraction comparable to Pigeon Forge, Tenn., according to a recent study released by the Kentucky Chamber Foundation, the state’s largest business organization.
“Eastern Kentucky can become an appealing regional destination for visitors from Kentucky and surrounding states, but making that happen will require long-term commitments from the private and public sectors to develop the tourism attractions that would be necessary,” according to a press release from the Kentucky Chamber Foundation about the study.
The study falls in line with recent bipartisan efforts to work to find a solution to the region’s economic disparity with a summit in December, said John Epperson with Perry County Tourism.
“I’m hoping to know more after we attend this meeting,” he said. “And maybe once we come from it we’ll all have a better idea of how Governor Beshear and Congressman Rogers and people like that are looking at it.”
To conduct the study, the Chamber earlier this year commissioned AECOM, a consulting firm that specializes in economic analysis. President and CEO of the Chamber David Adkisson said the purpose of the study was “to take a serious look at the tourism potential of Eastern Kentucky and to create a dialogue about how to develop and underdeveloped region of the state.”
Epperson said Perry County is in a prime position to begin efforts such as these.
“We have a golden opportunity. If they (tourists) come off I-75 travelling from Tennessee or Ohio they’ve got to come through Hazard. We’re the gateway, sort of like the gateway city,” he said.
Epperson explained that Sevierville, Tenn., used to also be an under-developed area, however, since it was also a gateway city for those travelling to Pigeon Forge, was able to work to develop itself into an attraction similar to what the study showed Eastern Kentucky could become simply by attracting the traffic already flowing through it.
“We’ve been working on little things like that,” Epperson added of Perry County, but said that for anything like what the study found to come to fruition every other county in the region would have to develop their attractions, too.
Epperson said though he is very optimistic about the results of the study and the current efforts to focus on tourism as a way to help Eastern Kentucky’s economy, he’s also realistic, adding that it took 25-40 years for Sevierville to develop into what it is today.
“When I was little, there was nothing there … and we used to zip right through it. Now, look at it,” he said.
Adkisson said the study was not meant to tackle all of the issues facing the region, but was simply meant to focus on tourism as a possible area of development for jobs, and to look at the assets of the area, including its natural beauty and central location in relation to the nation’s population.
“Clearly, economic development will require public and private strategies which can be pursued together and which can produce practical solutions,” Adkisson said. we hope our study will advance the critical dialogue that is needed to reinvigorate an important region of our Commonwealth.”