Work needed to diversify the region
by Amelia Holliday
Lawrence County Judge-Executive John Osborne told WYMT-TV in Hazard this week that Kentucky Power’s decision to shut down its plant in Louisa by 2015 would be a detriment to the area. Considering the number of jobs and tax dollars the plant represents, Judge Osborne’s lamentations are certainly understandable.
Lawrence County will be facing the same issues many counties in the southeastern part of the state are already facing, namely a bump in unemployment and reduction in local tax dollars.
“Coal is Kentucky. Coal is West Virginia. I mean that’s just what we live off around these parts,” Judge Osborne told the TV station, and in reality, therein lies the problem. Our local economy is a single-minded one.
The thousands of jobs the coal industry represents in Eastern Kentucky are good-paying jobs worth saving that have essentially kept this region afloat. But as a region we have utterly failed to build our economy any further in the past century, and now we’re seeing the results. Perry County’s unemployment rate is bumping against 14 percent, Knott County’s is closer to 16 percent, while Harlan and Leslie County are more than 16 percent. That’s compared to a state average of less than 8 percent.
That’s not to say there hasn’t been an effort to attract jobs. Here in Perry County hundreds were brought here by virtue of the Coalfields Industrial Park. But by and large, our efforts to diversify the wider economy of Eastern Kentucky have failed, and were exacerbated by the economic crisis and a federal policy pushing us away from fossil fuels.
In Western Kentucky, according to our own reporting, there was a concerted effort to attract more jobs to the coal counties there. As of February 2013, of the counties in the Western Coalfields, only Muhlenberg recorded an unemployment rate of higher than 10 percent. The Western Coalfields’ average rate is 8 percent. And while their coal industry is doing better than ours, they don’t rely solely on coal to prop up their economy.
And neither should we.
We believe Eastern Kentucky has a lot to offer, and there are options for diversification ranging from agriculture to tourism to manufacturing. In addition to a focus on the coal industry, there needs to be a focus in other areas. Our one-note economy can’t stand much more job loss.
— The Hazard Herald
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