HARLAN — This past weekend Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC) hosted a conference, Appalachia’s Bright Future, in Harlan. The purpose of the gathering was to have an organized conversation about the opportunities and challenges within the state and region and how to effectively build the next economy here in Eastern Kentucky and Central Appalachia.
Ada Smith, a member of KFTC, moderated discussions from a panel of guests on Saturday morning who have seen revitalization happen in other places.
“We are interested, as a people here in Harlan County, Letcher County, and all of southeastern Kentucky, to find out out how and what other people have done as solutions to the types of problems we are facing,” said Smith. Hopefully we can take some lessons and apply them here. We also hope to find real solutions,” Smith said. “There has already been some progress and successes in efforts to move forward economically in southeastern Kentucky.”
Still, Smith also admitted that there have been mistakes and possible back steps as well.
Smith is currently working with Appalshop in Letcher County. She serves as the co-director of the youth media group, Appalachia Media Institute (AMI). She said she remains optimistic and believes the weekend’s conference will help to broaden the conversations this region needs to be having.
“We have these schools, University of Pikeville and the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, right here in the coalfields and that’s a positive thing,” said Smith. “Our hospitals are growing and other various things besides only energy; things are changing,” stated Smith. “I really want to see Kentucky be a leading place for innovation and creativity. I see glimmers of it, but I want to see more. So, hopefully our politicians will see a broader picture of things concerning this region and begin to contribute more effectively to Appalachia’s bright future.”
Besides just having conversations of where we’re at and where we want to get to, we are preparing for and stepping into transition, said Suzanne E. Tallichet, member of KFTC and Professor of Sociology at Morehead State University.
“It’s about the transition of stepping into the next stage of economic development,” said Tallichet. Tallichet hopes the region’s peoples will become empowered and that there will be an increase of businesses, even small businesses, within southeastern Kentucky’s communities.
Tallichet pointed out that some of the important subjects being talked about over the weekend included forestry, local foods, remediation of polluted areas, and diversity of jobs.
“Having diversity in the communities’ economies is an important transition,” said Tallichet. “The people of southeastern Kentucky have been cheated. This place and its people are intelligent enough, enduring enough, innovative enough, to do special things.”
In reference to the weekend, “this is just a conference, but I believe it’s accurately named. Appalachia’s bright future is what this is all about,” stated Carl Shoupe, member of the KFTC and a former and disabled coal miner and retired organizer for United Mine Workers of America.
“I’m not against coal,” said Shoupe. “Still, the truth is, coal is down, and we are suffering. I love this place. I’m a hillbilly and I love these mountains and I’d love for my children and grandchildren to be able to stay here. Maybe the continuance of a mono-economy isn’t going to work for our future. The coal industry has provided good-paying jobs, but those jobs are sparse right now. Seeing diversity within our economy might be a good thing. These Appalachian, mountain people are an incredibly gifted, strong, hard-working people. We can do this. Coal isn’t the only thing we can be good at.”