New Risk Takers Design a Post-Coal Economy

[imgbelt img= minerarm320.jpg]Residents of Eastern Kentucky, united in their love of the region, are
divided in their visions of its economic future. Kelli Haywood looks and listens — and works — with strong allegiance to both sides.


Mountain Association for Community Economic Development.  Despite this truth, our plans for the future include living in the coalfields of southeastern Kentucky. John feels like it is better to stick it out and see what happens than to change the course before we know we have to. He didn’t take out any business loans to start The Parlor Room. He used a credit card and income tax returns to fund the start-up costs.  The shop’s location on Main Street is surprisingly affordable and the operation itself doesn’t have to be expensive to be high-quality.  After 16 months, the shop pays for itself and the business has grown. Now John has another artist working with him and has taken on two apprentices.

[imgcontainer left] [img:parlorroom320.jpg] [source]Kelli Haywood

Entrepreneurs like John Haywood are taking a risk, but these days the Appalachian coal economy is risky business, too. Haywood, shown here at the office of The Parlor Room, was discouraged from working in the mines by his grandfather.
Since opening The Parlor Room, John has been joined on a reviving Main Street by new start-ups: a restaurant, a consignment shop, an art gallery and, much anticipated, a new bakery.  In Whitesburg and the surrounding towns in Letcher County, we see the trend in entrepreneurship very clearly. Joining the well established small business community are several men and women who have begun photography businesses. There are new embroidery shops, up-scale consignments, an outdoor sports and apparel shop, and a noticeable abundance of peddler’s malls.

I asked my dad whether he believed, if the coal industry completely dissolved, the region would recover economically. His answer wasn’t comforting:

 “No, and here is why. Eastern Kentucky has no infrastructure to support any heavy industry, nor light industry for that matter. Rail systems have sold track lines and rights of way. Freight lines on highways would create tremendous traffic problems and air pollution from diesel exhaust. There are no natural tourism attractions which would entice outsiders to visit, let alone spend money. You have some nice views, but attractions, none.  Tourism could not flourish; it also has no infrastructure.” 

In the face of this, stands the revival of Whitesburg’s Main Street. Somehow hope resides there, and in other areas of the region. 


Editor’s note: For more perspectives on the Eastern Kentucky economy, we recommend Dee Davis’s “Living in the Fixer-Upper” and Thomas Miller’s “Proximity Matters.”