Eat, Drink, Hear Great Music: Building the New Economy in Small-Town Kentucky

Originally published in December 2014.

What does the collapse of the coal industry mean for Kentucky? What if it meant a strong local economy, more and better jobs, healthy communities, safe and affordable energy, opportunities for youth, and a vibrant democracy?

That is the vision of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth (KFTC), an organization of 8,300 members across the state working to build a better future for Kentucky’s new economy post-coal.

Coal Jobs are Leaving

Economic transition in Kentucky is inevitable, and imminent; coal jobs are leaving the region at an astounding rate, especially in Eastern Kentucky, where 75% have vanished since 1984, 40% of which is accounted for by jobs lost since 2012.

40% of coal jobs have vanished from Eastern Kentucky since 2012.

Some suggest a solution to the lack of jobs in rural areas is for Kentuckians to leave behind their small towns for the nearest big city. Others see job potential in a new federal prison, widening the Mountain Parkway, and mountaintop removal to extract the region’s remaining coal.

Kentucky’s Future

KFTC has a different vision. The organization and its members are working hard to make sure the transition to a new economy in Kentucky is a just transition, socially and environmentally.

“It’s not just about moving beyond the mono-economy of coal to a different, destructive mono-economy — like depending on a prison, factory farm, or some other centralized destructive industry,” says KFTC member Sylvia Ryerson.

“It’s not just about moving beyond the mono-economy of coal to a different destructive mono-economy.”

Residents on all sides of the debate seem to agree that entrepreneurship and local business will play a key role in creating the future Kentuckians want for their families and their communities.

And while there’s a lot of talk in the region, and the nation at large, about the importance of local business development, in Whitesburg, Kentucky, they’re not just talking, they’re opening up shop.

Small Business in Whitesburg

Summit City Lounge, a cafe, gallery, and music venue in Whitesburg, opened its doors in 2007 in a historic downtown building.

Owners Amelia Kirby and Joel Beverly, both members of KFTC, saw that Whitesburg, a town of 2,000, lacked a “community convivial space” where people could get together, talk, and exchange ideas.

In many towns, this need is served by a pub, restaurant, or performance space: Summit City in effect became all three.

“We believe that small, community-centered, locally-owned businesses are vital to healthy communities,” says Kirby. “We’re committed to serving fresh, delicious food, using local ingredients when possible, to small breweries and distilleries, mountain art and music, and to bringing people together.”

Summit City’s patrons are all over the political spectrum. It’s become a place where people who are fiercely divided over issues like coal are getting together over food, drinks, and music.

An article in National Geographic described Summit City as “a haunt for poets and coal miners,” but Kirby, a sixth-generation Appalachian, says “Here, there is no divide between the two. We are all fighters and builders and innovators and big dreamers — people who figure out how to make it work, even when we owe our soul to the company store.”

“Here, we are all fighters and builders and innovators and big dreamers.”

Summit City has already hosted some big-name performers, like Jason Isbell (formerly of Drive-By Truckers), and Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires, fresh from the pages of Rolling Stone, who looked out into the audience at Summit City one Saturday night and said, “We’ve been hearing about this place for years. It’s great to finally play Whitesburg.”

The Christmas Lights Effect

Why would big-name bands come to play at a small venue in an Eastern Kentucky town? The answer lies, at least partly, in one of Whitesburg’s other local businesses: Appalshop.

This 45-year-old nonprofit media arts and education hub houses a community-run radio station, so artists coming to play at Summit City know they’ll be heard not just in Whitesburg, but for miles around.

Appalshop recently opened a state-of-the-art vault for its production archives of Kentucky history: films of families, coal workers, country singers, and Kentuckians young and old telling stories about their lives.

“We need to emphasize social and economic clustering,” said one resident at a recent summit on Appalachia’s future. “Development doesn’t occur in a diffuse, dispersed manner, but in a concentrated way — like Christmas lights on a Christmas tree.”

Railroad Street Mercantile

David and Kae Fisher opened the Railroad Street Mercantile just around the corner from Summit City Lounge, inspired in part by Kirby and Beverly’s example.

David Fisher had been a long-time steel worker until he was laid off, along with 78 other workers, one day in 2012.

It was his wife Kae who had the idea to open up a general store. She recognized the need for a place where people could pick up essentials in between trips to the big chain stores. The couple opened Railroad Street Mercantile in 2013, selling necessities along with local produce, meat, and eggs.

Says David Fisher about their neighboring business owners at Summit City, “To me, they were a shining example of ‘Hey, I’m going to do this — this is something we need.’”

Reaching Scale

Amelia Kirby and Joel Beverly and the Fishers are examples of everyday people taking the courageous first steps towards building the kind of future they want to see.

But to become self-sustaining, local businesses need the kind of initiatives, policy change, and momentum that will help them reach scale. And they need it now, as economic transition in Kentucky is accelerating rapidly.

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the War on Poverty from a porch in Eastern Kentucky. Since then the region has seen a number of poverty-relief efforts; many have helped, but all have failed to create real, lasting prosperity for the state. The economic transition unfolding right now might finally be Kentucky’s opportunity to do just that.

As activist Helen Lewis says, “The people who agreed to spend their days digging coal from the underside of mountains produced enough power to industrialize the nation: They’re owed something back.”