What do you think Harlan County will look like in 25 years?
That was one of the questions approximately 120 people were asked when they attended a listening session Tuesday night at the Harlan Center as planning continues for the county’s participation in the federal Promise Zone initiative.
Dr. Lori Garkovich, a state extension specialist from the University of Kentucky, asked participants to identify community assets and challenges for the county and how those can be tied to regional initiatives to provide new life for the area.
“We’ve heard some harsh things here tonight,” she said. “If you don’t believe in the possibility of change, then why should anyone else?… If you are going to wait on the Lone Ranger to ride in and save you, it is not going to happen. There is no Lone Ranger.”
She noted that during the 1950s and 1960s Harlan County lost 50 percent of its population, noting that many of those same people today are at or near retirement.
Dr. Matt Nunez noted that “a lot of people have lost hope… If we can change that attitude… we’d be a lot better off.”
Garkovich explained the reason for the meeting is to develop plans for the county and region that can boost funding at the federal level as a result of the eight southeastern Kentucky counties being tagged as one of five Promise Zones. She said the meeting would collect information from attendees with compiling a list of resources to build upon and to identify ways to address various challenges which were identified.
She explained there is not a “guaranteed pot of money,” but added “strong proposals” tied to county and regional plans are more likely to be funded.
Garkovich said the “Promise Zone is not a big pot of money that the federal government sat aside to divvy up.”
However, by being a part of a zone and tying grant applications “can get you preference points” when grants are scored.
With the local Promise Zone initiative being led by Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation, she explained the U.S. Department of Agriculture has assigned a lead person to the state to assist those participating in the initiative better connect and navigate federal agencies.
A regional plan must be completed by the end of May, she said.
With the meeting continuing for two hours, there appeared to be consensus that the greatest challenge is the lost of coal jobs and the lack of diversification through factories.
One of numerous college students attending quickly cited the need for long-term politicians who “run multiple times” need to allow others to assume leadership positions with new ideas.
“Everybody has heard the assets that we have in this county. We have an abundance of them,” said Tri-City resident Stanley Sturgill. ” We don’t have roads… You get them through politicians.”
Sturgill said the multiple district representation in the state legislature has hurt the county and a single representative is needed.
“Until we do that we ain’t going to have much of anything here,” said Sturgill. “I’ve seen this county go from topnotch to the bottom of the pits.”
Jacob Moses, a student attending with classmates from the Appalachian Studies class at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, said the area must consider a move from coal to alternative fuels.
Reporting on information compiled by a breakout table of attendees, Moses said the time might have arrived for a fully wet county, classes in schools must teach real world knowledge, and problems such as tobacco must be addressed in schools as it is a major contributor to the area’s drug problem because it is “one of our biggest gateway drugs.”
Magistrate Jonathan Pope said one asset overlooked here “is our young people. We need to get them more involved.”
Moses cited the need for renovations of facilities.
“A lot of our area’s facilities are old and worn out. We don’t want to see it become an urban area and we don’t want to see it go down in ruin.,” he said.
Cleon Cornett, chairman of the Cumberland Tourism Commission and the Tri-City Heritage Development Corp., said he would like to see the area fully develop the potential for tourism.
Donnell Busroe, local businesswoman, commented that she would like to see the area as a retreat place where people come to learn to live a simple life.
Deron Major said he hopes to see a healthier county with the wellness facilities to help make that happen.
Cumberland Main Street Director suggested efforts be made to develop a nice senior retirement area. She noted senior citizens “are the backbone” of the area as they are well educated, good volunteers, church members and much more.
“We need opportunities for these people,” she said.
Garkovich’s work was just beginning at the Harlan meeting. A similar meeting was held in Letcher County on Wednesday.
A meeting will be held at the Whitley County Courthouse at 3:30 p.m. today and in Bell County on April 8, with the time and location to be announced.
In addition, she will be holding listening sessions with high school students in each county.