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"Focus on how we can move forward"

We often lament here the lack of political leadership in preparing Appalachia for a low-coal future, so it was refreshing to read an op-ed from Kentucky state Rep. Leslie Combs that called for less fighting over coal and more support for a more robust Appalachian economy. "We need to be talking about the new reality of less mining because we've known this day was coming," she wrote. Combs, along with another Eastern Kentucky coalfield legislator, pre-filed a bill that would return all coal severance taxes back to the counties where the coal was mined (currently they get less than half). It's a bill that is unlikely to pass, as Combs admits, but if it's a catalyst to get the legislature talking about Eastern Kentucky's economic development, then that's a start. 

In response to Rep. Combs' op-ed, the Herald-Leader wrote its own editorial, praising Combs for "her eagerness to lead on this challenge," and stating that "Combs' bottom line — 'focus less on placing blame and more on how coal-mining regions can move forward' — is unassailable." But it also pushes some of her ideas farther: "We could also support returning more of the severance tax to coal counties, but only if there is a smart plan based on sound economics and governance that would be democratic, transparent and accountable with quantifiable measures of success and failure."

Comprehensive, participatory strategic planning is absolutely crucial to Appalachia's transition. How many news stories have been written about a huge new investment into a project that fails to fulfill its promises of economic development? Too often these projects have been planned and implemented in a vacuum, with little regard for what's really needed, what's already there, or how the community feels about it. 

Why It's Important to Buy Local

The New York Times this weekend featured a beautifully-written column about the demise of a community centerpiece in Big Stone Gap, VA. The Mutual Drug Cafeteria has been more than just a place to fill a prescription, pick up a few items and grab a bite to eat - it's been a much-beloved gathering place for the community for decades. And now, like many small-town locally-owned businesses, it's being sold to a chain pharmacy. We know that small business owners are key as we work to build economic resiliency in Appalachia - but how often are we spending our money there? Here's an excerpt, but be sure to read the whole piece over at the New York Times

I had hoped my children would have memories of the Mutual, that they would have studied the old pictures on the wall and learned about community while eating lunch in those brown booths. Memories aren’t made in superstores with their beeping and bar codes, with their automatic doors and drive-through windows. As the town inches toward homogenization, it loses a little more of its history, language, architecture....

There is wishful chatter about somebody opening the Mutual again, a cafe in the space where people can come together, where tourists can eat a piece of pie and see the fog rising from the river like spirits against the backdrop of ancient mountains. They could step over to a new tourist center, they dream, where they will get directions to landmarks like our museums and recreational trails....

There is potential in our rural community and those nearby for landmarks to be renovated and reopened, and crumbling buildings replaced with gardens, spaces for farmers’ markets and theaters. If towns want to thrive again, they have to focus on preserving and promoting their signature attractions. Small businesses like the Mutual must be part of that plan to draw people back.

After all, no one ever takes a road trip to see a CVS or McDonald’s.

We must make an agreement to support our small businesses and make the hope of saving our towns a reality.

"It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know we have to diversify the economy."

The latest issue of LEO Weekly, a news magazine out of Louisville, features a cover story on the coal severance tax. "Reclaiming Kentucky," by Willie Davis, explores the questions so many of us have been asking for some time: what is the best use of the severance tax? What's next for the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky? The article begins, as so many articles on the subject have done lately, with the now-notorious decision to use $2.5 million of severance funds for the renovation of Rupp Arena, but then goes further: 

Ultimately, however, this story isn’t just about Rupp Arena. Two-and-a-half-million dollars is pocket change compared to what the renovation will cost. What’s more interesting is the debate that has followed. It shows that no matter how often we address this issue, we are operating on outdated assumptions about coal, about poverty and about the future of rural Kentucky. Right now, there are billions of dollars that the coal companies have paid that could be used to help poor counties and hire laid-off miners. The bulk of that money is simply not being spent. The problem isn’t that some of that money goes to Rupp Arena; it’s that so little of that money goes to where it is supposed to go.

Music Festival Helps Small Virginia Town Grow

You might not expect to find some of the biggest names in indie and folk rock playing at a dot on the map in Southwest Virginia, but the town of Floyd is bringing them in. Bands like the Lumineers and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros typically play to sold-out crowds in much bigger cities around the world, but next month they will be joining dozens of other musicians at FloydFest. Music festivals are growing in popularity, but they're typically found in larger metropolitan areas. Floyd has a population of under 500 people - so what effect does an influx of over 10,000 tourists at once have? According to an article in the Roanoke Times, it's a positive one. The owner of the single hotel in town books rooms a year in advance of the festival, and plans to expand. People traveling hundreds of miles for a festival that costs hundreds of dollars generally have money to spend on other amenities. From the article: 

 “Some people come in the Monday before to get settled and to go around the town,” Wall said.

That means they’re spending money, eating and shopping in the area longer than just the festival’s four days.

“FloydFest is good for just about everyone here,” said Jim Newlin, a manager of the store Republic of Floyd . “People sometimes come just to get a little break when they visit here. But the businesses prepare for it.”

Helping the Arts Thrive in Appalachia

With its rich cultural and artistic heritage, many Appalachian towns are looking at promoting the arts as an economic driver. Some places - like Abingdon, VA with its Barter Theater - have seen success with this model, but others have struggled. The Lexington Herald-Leader recently profiled the town of Hindman, KY and its "arts and smarts plan" promoted by then-governor Paul Patton: 

The CDI [Community Development Initiative] built two institutions in Hindman: a Kentucky School of Craft, to train folk artists, and an Appalachian Artisan Center, to exhibit and sell their wares. Patton said he wanted to expand the local economy beyond coal mining's boom-and-bust cycle.

"We hoped to establish a little artistic community much like Berea has. As an economic development tool, we anticipated people coming in for art shows, to attend classes, to shop," Patton said in a recent interview.

Unfortunately, things did not go quite as planned. Politics, insufficient funding, corruption, and the challenge of attracting and keeping quality artisans and teachers have plagued the School of Craft in particular. These challenges underscore the need for long-term, stable investments and solid political leadership, but also the importance of developing an area's own artisans and teachers. Accrording to the article, the School of Craft essentially had to close when its two teachers - both from outside the region - left because they didn't "want to live in Hindman anymore." 

But in a region as artistically rich as Central Appalachia, why are we relying solely on teachers from outside the region? One of the reasons, according to a recent commentary in the Daily Yonder, is that we're "exporting" our artistic young people:

Like clear-cutting a forest or blasting the top off of a mountain in order to send wood and coal to urban dwellers, the American arts system extracts artistic resources in the form of talented young people and tells them that the only place they can make a living in the arts is New York City. ...shouldn’t we be teaching our talented young people the skills needed to practice their art in places other than New York and Los Angeles, in places that are starving for the arts, maybe even places like their own home towns?  

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