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Regional survival at stake as Central Appalachia leaders grapple with what comes after coal


Across Central Appalachia, especially Eastern Kentucky, “elected officials, business leaders, environmentalists and community advocates are looking beyond politics to wrestle with a question essential to the region’s survival: What comes after coal?” Sheryl Gay Stolberg reports for The New York Times.

Lora Smith, who oversees grants in Central Appalachia for the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, agreed with Ben Spangler of the Whitesburg media-and-arts cooperative Appalshop, who wrote that “Central Appalachia is presently in a strange place as the collapse of the coal industry leaves the region in an historical moment of terrifying liberation,” saying that it can be liberating to imagine what the future holds.

Startups have begun addressing some employment needs by training displaced coal miners in coding, Stolberg reports.

Nathan Hall, left, and Todd Howard hope industrial hemp helps revitalize the Central Appalachian economy (New York Times Photo by Mike Belleme from Rural Blog)

Nathan Hall, left, and Todd Howard hope industrial
hemp helps revitalize the Central Appalachian economy
(New York Times Photo by Mike Belleme from Rural Blog)

Many rural towns have begun creating tourism projects, finding ways to create small businesses—often run by young entrepreneurs—are trying to turn Appalachian food trends into profits, offering training in the growing teleworks field and are making efforts to make the region more energy efficient to save residents costs in utilities.

Martin Richards, who runs Kentucky’s Community Farm Alliance, said many unemployed Eastern Kentucky residents “are increasingly turning to farming ‘out of necessity’,” Stolberg writes. Richards, whose group works with eight farmers’ markets in Eastern Kentucky, said the number of farmers’ markets participants has doubled in the past five years.

With Congress in 2014 allowing Kentucky to grow industrial hemp, that has also become a growing business within the state.

Political efforts have also been made to promote innovation in the region, led by Shaping Our Appalachian Region, created by former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and longtime Eastern Kentucky Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican, Stolberg writes.

Rogers, who said they were tired of solutions that came from Washington, told Stolberg, “We decided that whatever we did would have to be sprung from within.”

Appalshop, which grew out of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, was “also rethinking the group’s future in a post-coal economy,” Stolberg writes. “Ada Smith, 29, is among a new generation taking over; she is the daughter of an Appalshop founder, Herb E. Smith, 64, a filmmaker and miner’s son who has spent the past half-century documenting union fights, mine disasters, polluted land and water, and wrenching cycles of boom and bust.”

She told Stolberg, “What’s needed in this transition, people in the region who want to stay—and figure it out.”

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The Rural Blog is a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, from the IRJCI, based at the University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see www.RuralJournalism.org.


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