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Targeting Resources for Local Growth

by James E. Casto

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Photo of Knott County artisan Michael Ware

In Hindman, Kentucky, a community coalition is pushing ahead with an ambitious plan to transform the tiny Knott County town into a center for education, including the kind of practical, hands-on business training that artists and artisans need if they're to make a living from their creations. Helping make that plan a reality: more than $20 million in state and federal grants.

Meanwhile, local planners in Jenkins, Kentucky, hope that a new 77-acre industrial park will lure the companies and new jobs the once-thriving Letcher County community so desperately needs. The cost of the new industrial park, including water and sewer lines, access roads, and related improvements: about $6.5 million, financed with a combination of state and federal grants.

At first blush, the Knott-Hindman and Letcher-Jenkins projects might seem very different. But the two have something important in common. Both are the first fruits of a young grassroots effort in the state, the Kentucky Appalachian Community Development Initiative (CDI), that's attracting widespread attention in the Appalachian Region.

Ewell Balltrip, executive director of the Kentucky Appalachian Commission, which oversees the initiative, explains the program's origin and the thinking behind it: "Back in 1996, we started asking ourselves the question of how we could better allocate our development resources. What we were doing was scattering a lot of effort across a lot of area, and we felt that the return on this investment just wasn't what it should be."

The result of that questioning was the community development initiative program, the handiwork of Kentucky Governor Paul Patton.

An important aspect of the CDI program is its focusing of state and federal development dollars on targeted communities, rather than spending those dollars in piecemeal fashion. But the true hallmark of the program, Balltrip emphasizes, is its homegrown nature. The projects being funded aren't ideas that have been imported to or imposed on the communities, but are instead ones that have evolved from discussions within the communities themselves. "We asked each community where they wanted to be ten years down the road, and then we worked backward from that and started asking what needed to be done to make that happen."

In selecting participating communities for the program, Balltrip says, the commission considered several factors.

"We looked for communities that had an economic vision; a foundation of civic capital; a history of financial stability and the wherewithal to participate in the grant process; and, last, the necessary infrastructure or foundation for infrastructure—the 'bricks and mortar,' if you will. If they have all that, and we then provide the additional money they need, we feel they truly can develop a sustainable local economy."

Hindman and Jenkins were the first two locations selected for the CDI program, in 1997. More recently, two others have been added: Paintsville, in Johnson County, and three small communities—Cumberland, Benham, and Lynch—in Harlan County.

Jenkins, located on Elkhorn Creek near the Virginia border, was built in the early 1900s by the Consolidation Coal Company. Hailed as a model coal town of its day, it once was the center of the largest coal-mining operation in Kentucky. Consolidation Coal sold out after World War II, and mining in the area dwindled. Local backers hope the new industrial park will attract small manufacturing to replace the once-thriving coal economy.

In Paintsville, efforts are focused on building a business incubator aimed at encouraging entrepreneurial activities and on developing a workforce training program with a local technical college. Harlan County planners have opted to concentrate on developing cultural tourism, keyed to an expansion of the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum, as well as on expanding business and industrial activities linked to the area's natural resources.

Reshaping a Community

When Governor Patton selected the Hindman proposal to be one of the first designated communities for the community development initiative in 1997, he cautioned that the true results of the program wouldn't be measurable for a decade.

In Hindman, however, the CDI project already has begun to reshape the community.

Hindman is situated in a narrow valley where two forks of water come together to form Troublesome Creek. Founded in 1884 as the county seat of the newly formed Knott County, it was named for James P. Hindman, then Kentucky's lieutenant governor. True to its name, Troublesome Creek frequently floods. That fact, linked with the lack of flat land, prevented the town from growing. Never large, the population stood at 808 in 1970 and has slowly dropped, numbering 787 in the 2000 Census.

The tiny town was the birthplace of the late Carl D. Perkins, who served eastern Kentucky in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1949 to 1984. A handsome statue of the congressman stands in front of the county courthouse.

But Hindman is best known as the home of the Hindman Settlement School. Located just a stone's throw from the forks of Troublesome Creek and the town's business district, the school was founded in 1902 to provide educational opportunities for the boys and girls of Knott County and adjacent counties. Many youngsters lived in isolated mountainous areas far from any school, and so they came to the tuition-free Hindman Settlement School as boarders. The settlement quickly carved out a reputation for academic excellence. Today, while no longer a boarding school, the school continues to offer a wide array of educational services, including a comprehensive learning program for students with dyslexia, and an adult education/GED program; it also houses the Knott County Public Library on its grounds. And through its crafts program, the school encourages the production and sale of local handicrafts and supports the preservation of mountain culture.

It's this twin tradition of education and crafts that's the foundation the Hindman CDI project hopes to build on, says G. Edward Hughes, the president of Hazard Community College (HCC) and co-chair of the project's steering committee. The vision, he explains, "is to build an educational corridor in Hindman, raising the level of education here while creating jobs and revitalizing Hindman's Main Street."

Central to that vision is the creation of a one-of-a-kind crafts school, the Kentucky School of Craft, to train master artisans. Additionally, the Kentucky Appalachian Artisan Center will assist local and regional craftspeople in learning to run their own businesses, while increasing their crafts skills. At the same time, construction of a new building for the Knott County Branch of Hazard Community College—which already serves about 350 students in temporary quarters—will enable it to dramatically expand both its enrollment and its offerings.

And there's more. Determined to dream big, the planners intend to carve out a role for Hindman in the region's bustling tourism trade.

"Thousands of visitors will be coming to Knott County to see the new school, observe artisans, and buy handmade objects made right here, creating a tourist economy," says Carla Robinson, executive director of the Kentucky Appalachian Artisan Center, which will oversee the artisans' support and marketing services arm of the CDI project.

Strength in Diversity

Given the many different elements of the project, there would seem to be ample room for confusion and miscommunication. But Hughes, in fact, sees the project's scope as one of its strengths. "The project is so big and diverse that anyone in Knott County can find something in it if they wish to participate. While we may not agree on every component of the plan, we have come together to support the entire plan to make this a better place to live and visit. We expanded the steering committee to include 37 people, representing all walks of life, from all sections of the county."

One of the first steps at translating the plan into reality comes this fall, when the newly expanded artisan center opens its doors on Main Street. To be housed in a former store building now undergoing extensive remodeling, the center will include a retail crafts showroom and exhibit space on the first floor, and a computer resource library, artisan work and demonstration areas, and retail shipping facilities on the second. Just down the street, a second building has also been purchased, and once remodeled will house the Kentucky Appalachian Artisans Business Incubator, slated for opening in mid-to-late 2002.

Pat Sutton Bradley now operates a flower shop and framing business in the second building and faces the task of finding new quarters for her business. But, as a member of the artisan center's board of directors, she's been part of the planning process and is enthusiastic about the Hindman CDI project. "I'm not looking forward to moving, but I'm ready to do whatever it takes," she says. Michael Ware is equally enthusiastic. One of ten craftspeople who serve on the artisan center's advisory council, Ware is a talented potter who came to Hindman from his native Pennsylvania. "I thought I would stay a while and then move on. That was 25 years ago." Now, he says, he's increasingly eager to see the artisan center become a reality.

The Kentucky School of Craft itself will be located across the creek in a handsome stone structure built in the 1930s as Hindman High School. With school consolidation, the building was no longer needed to house students, and so it became the offices of the Knott County school system. The school offices have now been relocated to a new building, and work will begin soon on remodeling the old building for the school of craft. The cost is estimated at $4.1 million.

Tim Glotzbach, newly hired as the school's director and dean, spent 20 years as a professor at Eastern Kentucky University before coming to Hindman.

"The great thing about what we're going to be doing," Glotzbach says, "is that we're going to focus not just on giving people skills, as other university art programs do, but also on allowing them to develop the kind of business skills and acumen so that, on completion of a two-year course of study, they will be equipped to run their own businesses. For many of them, that will be the difference between staying here and having to leave. Traditional four-year universities just don't do that."

Groundbreaking is also expected soon on the project's single most expensive undertaking—a $5.2 million education center that will be the new home of the Knott County Branch of Hazard Community College, the Knott County Public Library, a distance learning center, and related education facilities.

An additional $5 million for infrastructure work including replacing bridges and improving local roads—essential if Hindman is to welcome busloads of visitors—brings the project's total price tag to more than $20 million.

But Ron Daley, director of HCC's Knott County branch, argues that Hindman is seeing more than a transfusion of federal-state dollars.

"We now have things we didn't have before," Daley says. "More resources, of course. But the key thing we have now is hope. We've been living in a town that was dying, one where people had lost hope. Today, I see an excitement in this county that I've never seen before. We've recognized the good things we had and reminded ourselves of the good people who live here. We'd decided, before we were selected for the program, that if the governor didn't pick us, we were going to do this ourselves. Working together, we've come to realize that we can make a difference."

James E. Casto is associate editor of The Herald-Dispatch in Huntington, West Virginia.