Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Appalachian economic development veteran says expectations for Eastern Ky. should be lowered

A debate may be starting on what to do about Eastern Kentucky, one of the nation's poorest areas.

Thomas Miller, who helped build the Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation and founded the Mountain Association for Community and Economic Development, has written a strong response to Center for Rural Strategies president Dee Davis' October call to action in Central Appalachia. Davis said that in order for Eastern Kentucky to improve, the region needed to improve education and healthcare and fight corruption. However, Miller says it's not possible to "turn this things around," as Davis wrote. Both are featured on the Daily Yonder.

Appalachian Regional Commission map (partial)
shows economically distressed counties in red.
Miller says significant and durable economic development, and major changes in the size and composition of the region's economy, just won't happen -- because expectations for the region are too high. "As the years roll by I am ever less able to muster confidence that we have a sufficient chance of transforming our economy in these mountains," Miller writes. "I do not encourage us to give up, but if we are to make progress we must be realistic about our expectations and pick targets we have a good chance to hit." Many of the region's ills, including education, healthcare, transportation and communications, have been remedied, he says, but there are still major economic issues that need to be addressed.

"It would seem we have tried it all: 50 years of economic development involving lots and lots of taxpayer money, large scale and small spending on one program after another . . . job training to craft cooperatives, Foxfire to clean coal," Miller writes. But the Appalachian economy is still lacking and will "poised to fall into an even bigger sinkhole as our reachable coal reserves play out at the same time that coal is losing favor as a source of energy."

Miller says that he doesn't advocate giving up on development in the region, just being more realistic about it, and being more in tune with modern political life. He also says an understanding of proximity and economic development is important. "I submit that in an area of chronic economic distress, far removed from cultural and economic and social attractions, where the more ambitious kids have for decades brought their suitcases to high school graduation, we might be doing as well as can be expected. . . . Our own experience of these past 50 years is not encouraging, and if we can’t find others to show us where we have been going wrong and how to get our strategies right, then we must conclude that significant and durable economic development in the mountains is not a realistic prospect. Sure we should continue to work on stuff, but we should be honest about what we promise."

Much of Miller's lament is based on Eastern Kentucky's lack of population density, a key to for a region to "accumulate the necessary amenities to attract new residents and build the skills and connections between people that can lead to a diversified economy," he says. "It is time for us . . . to ask ourselves whether our focus ought to be less on the geography and infrastructure of Central Appalachia and more on the people themselves. . . .  Let our honesty begin with a discussion of what our efforts have or have not achieved and quickly move to lessons we can learn from others. . . . I do not know what else we can do but be radical now, in our analysis, in our debates and in who is sitting around the table." (Read more)

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