Who’s protecting abusive payday lending? Follow the money.

March 29, 2015

Legislation to rein in payday lenders, who trap some of Kentucky’s most vulnerable people in cycles of debt, died last week in the state Senate, but federal regulators are now stepping up to the plate.

payday-loanSen. Alice Forgy Kerr, a Lexington Republican, sponsored a bill that would limit payday loan interest rates, which can approach 400 percent, to 36 percent, the limit the U.S. Department of Defense sets for loans to military personnel.

The bill was supported by consumer advocates, as well as by both liberal and conservative church groups on moral grounds. But it died in the State and Local Government Committee. Wonder if that had anything to do with the payday lending industry’s campaign contributions to some legislators?

Last Thursday, President Barack Obama and the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced plans for a federal crackdown on payday lenders.

U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, a Lexington Republican who has received several hundred thousand dollars in contributions from financial services companies, issued a press release March 19 about proposed legislation to curb the CFPB’s “reckless regulatory overreaches.”

Looks more like an attempt to muzzle a watchdog that protects citizens from Barr’s corporate benefactors.


If Congress, state won’t raise minimum wage, Lexington should

March 29, 2015

The minimum wage has a big impact on low-wage workers, many of whom must rely on public assistance to make ends meet, as well as the overall economy, which is driven largely by consumer spending.

The $7.25 federal minimum wage hasn’t been raised since 2009. Its value adjusted for inflation has lost more than 25 percent since its peak in 1968.

Congressional Republicans have refused to raise the federal minimum wage. But many states and cities have raised theirs, realizing its importance to both low-wage workers and local economies.

The Democrat-led Kentucky House recently approved a state minimum-wage increase that was rejected by the Republican-led Senate. Louisville’s Metro Council in December approved a gradual minimum-wage increase to $9 over three years, which is being challenged in court.

Urban County Council member Jennifer Mossotti has proposed gradually raising Lexington’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by July 2017 and tying future increases to the consumer price index. The proposal also would gradually raise the $2.13 minimum wage for tipped workers, who haven’t seen an increase since 1991, to $3.09 over three years.

Council members are unlikely to consider the issue before June. But when they do, Jason Bailey, director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, has put together a good report about the low-wage Lexington workers who would be affected.

Among the highlights: An increase would directly lift wages for about 20 percent of Lexington workers, 90 percent of whom are older than 20 and 30 percent of whom are 35 and older. Fifty-seven percent are women, 54 percent work full-time and 26 percent have children at home. Read the full report at: Kypolicy.org.

Businesses usually oppose minimum-wage increases — if not the very idea of a minimum wage — saying that increasing labor costs forces them to put people out of work and raise prices. Studies have generally shown those effects to be negligible, and the economic impact to be positive.

A minimum-wage increase is long overdue. If federal and state officials won’t do it, Lexington should join other cities and states that are.


Land-use decisions in rural Fayette County require delicate balance

March 28, 2015

BooneCreekBurgess Carey rides a zip line at his controversial canopy tour, which city officials shut down. The dispute prompted a three-year examination of ways to add more public recreation and tourism opportunities in rural Fayette County which is ongoing. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

A tightly managed, three-year effort to expand public recreation and tourism opportunities in rural Fayette County started coming unwound Thursday as the Planning Commission prepared to vote on it.

Several commission members expressed concern that the proposed zoning ordinance text amendment, or ZOTA, which they and the Urban County Council must approve, would be too restrictive.

They started offering amendments, then put off the matter for more discussion until May 21 and a possible vote May 28. The delay was wise, because these complex zoning decisions have implications far beyond recreation.

The challenge with the ZOTA is striking the right balance of private property rights, public access and the long-term preservation of horse farms, other agriculture and an environmentally sensitive landscape that the World Monuments Fund has recognized as one of the most special and endangered places on earth.

It is important to note that the ZOTA wouldn’t change rules about what property owners can do on their land for their own enjoyment. It affects only new public recreation and tourism-related land uses, both commercial and non-profit.

Part of the problem with the ZOTA process has been that it grew out of a nasty dispute between Burgess Carey and some of his neighbors in the Boone Creek area off old Richmond Road.

Carey has a permit to operate a private fishing club on his property in Boone Creek Gorge. But he expanded it into a public canopy tour business, in which people toured the gorge from treetop platforms using zip lines and suspension bridges.

Neighbors opposed the business, and city officials shut it down.

Carey’s aggressiveness antagonized officials and made it easy for opponents to brand him an outlaw rather than debate the merits of having a canopy tour on Boone Creek. That’s a shame, because it is a well-designed, well-located facility that the public should be able to enjoy.

The Boone Creek dispute prompted the ZOTA process and made it contentious from the beginning. One result was that the city task force created to study the issue wasn’t as open as it should have been to public participation and diverse viewpoints. Hence, last week’s Planning Commission fireworks.

Suburban sprawl is incompatible with animal agriculture, especially high-strung racehorses. Development takes the Inner Bluegrass region’s valuable agricultural soils out of production.

That is why Lexington in 1958 became the first U.S. city to create an urban growth boundary. Without it and other rural land-use restrictions, horses and farms could have been crowded out of Fayette County years ago.

Farmers are understandably concerned about any nearby commercial development. But some other people think it is unfair for traditional agriculture to have a monopoly on rural land use.

The balancing act gets even more complicated in the environmentally sensitive and ruggedly beautiful land along the Kentucky River Palisades. It is an ideal place for low-impact outdoor recreation and environmental education. But most public access is restricted to the city’s Raven Run Nature Sanctuary.

Preserving these natural areas is complicated, because they need constant care to stop the spread of invasive plant species, especially bush honeysuckle and wintercreeper euonymus, which choke out native vegetation. It is a huge problem.

Much of the land along the river is owned by people dedicated to its care and preservation. Many spend a lot of money and effort fighting invasive species.

But, as a matter of public policy, it is risky for Lexington to count on landowners’ wealth and good intentions forever. It makes sense to give them some business opportunities to help pay for conservation, especially since much of this land is not suitable for traditional agriculture.

Most Fayette County rural land is zoned “agriculture rural.” The ZOTA proposal would create a new “agriculture natural” zoning option along the river with some different permitted uses.

Much of the debate about the ZOTA’s treatment of both zones is about what land uses should be “primary” by right and which should be “conditional,” requiring approval by the city Board of Adjustment. The conditional use process allows for more site-specific regulation, but it can be cumbersome for landowners.

Carey’s lawyer, John Park, who lives on adjacent property along Boone Creek, points out that poor farming practices in that area can be more environmentally destructive than some commercial and recreational uses. But state law gives farmers a lot of freedom from local zoning regulations.

One criticism of the ZOTA proposal — and other parts of Lexington’s zoning code, as well — is that in trying to regulate every conceivable land use to keep “bad” things from happening, the rules aren’t flexible enough to allow “good” things to happen.

These are complicated issues with a lot of good people and good points of view on all sides. More frank and open discussion is needed to reach something close to a community consensus.

Increasing public access to rural recreation and tourism is important, both for Lexington’s economy and quality of life. But it also is necessary for preservation.

People protect what they love. Finding more ways for people to connect with this irreplaceable landscape and agrarian-equine culture will nurture that love.


It won’t be cheap, but Lexington must renovate old courthouse

March 24, 2015

141231Downtown0070The old Fayette County Courthouse. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Remember the old TV commercials for Fram oil filters? An actor dressed as an auto mechanic would explain how a costly repair could have been prevented with regular oil changes.

His punch line: “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.”

Those ads came to mind as I read the report about all that is wrong with the old Fayette County Courthouse and what must be done to fix it. The building is well into “pay me later” status, and any further procrastination will make things worse.

Lexington’s EOP Architects and Preservation Design Partnership of Philadelphia spent six months cataloging decades of serious abuse and neglect of an iconic building that has defined the center of Lexington for more than a century.

This Richardsonian Romanesque temple of limestone, completed in 1900, symbolized the idea that public buildings should be beautiful as well as functional. It had a 105-foot-tall rotunda with a bronze-plated staircase paved in white marble. The dome was illuminated by then-new electric lights, and the cupola was crowned with a large racehorse weathervane.

But by 1930, growing Fayette County government needed more office space. Rather than branch out to annexes, more and more was crammed into the courthouse. The ultimate architectural insult came in 1960-61, when the rotunda was filled in and most of the elegant interior gutted to add elevators and more office space.

Building updates were ill-conceived. Little was spent on maintenance. The weathervane, damaged by a storm, was taken down in 1981.

The courts moved out in 2000 to new buildings two blocks away. The old courthouse was handed off to the Lexington History Museum and left to leak and crumble. Concerns about lead paint contamination prompted its closure in 2012.

The old courthouse is just one example of how Lexington squandered a rich architectural inheritance. For decades, “out with the old, in with the new” was city leaders’ motto. Much of the new was poorly designed and cheaply built.

There were many short-sighted demolitions, such as Union Station and the Post Office on Main Street, plus “modernizations” that now look ridiculous. New schools and office buildings were often cheap imitations of contemporary architecture. The city allowed many handsome buildings to be razed for parking lots.

There also was a lot of “demolition by neglect”, a trend that sadly continues at such places as the 1870 Odd Fellow’s Temple that most recently housed Bellini’s restaurant. It’s no wonder, since the old courthouse such a visible example.

Mayor Jim Gray deserves credit for trying to change things. The Downtown Development Authority and its consultants have put together an excellent, no-nonsense plan for a public-private partnership to renovate the old courthouse as a visitors’ center, public events venue and commercial space.

The cost of fixing and upgrading the building for new uses won’t be cheap: about $38 million, although about $11 million could come from historic preservation tax credits.

But what other choice do we have? The old courthouse is a black hole in an increasingly vibrant downtown that will soon include a 21C Museum Hotel in the restored First National building.

The consultants’ report says the old courthouse is basically sound structurally, but the damage so severe that a purely commercial restoration isn’t feasible.

That means city leaders must finally face up to their responsibility, just as they had to do when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency forced the city to fix long-inadequate sewer systems that were polluting neighborhoods and streams.

Fortunately, many Urban County Council members have expressed support for restoring the old courthouse. They recognize it as an investment in Lexington’s future. But you can bet some will vote “no” to try to score political points, just as three members did on the necessary sewer rate increase recently.

After all, what’s the alternative? Tear down the old courthouse? Imagine the bad publicity that would bring Lexington, especially after city officials in 2008 allowed the Webb Companies to destroy an entire block nearby to create a storage pit for idle construction cranes.

Demolition of the old courthouse would tell tourists that the “city of horses and history” doesn’t really care about its history. And it would tell potential residents and economic development prospects that Lexington is too cheap and short-sighted to care for its assets or invest in its future.

I think most Lexington leaders are smart enough to bite the bullet and do the right thing here. And if they are really smart, they also will make other investments to avoid big taxpayer liabilities in the future. As the old courthouse and EPA consent degree have painfully demonstrated, “pay me later” is rarely a wise choice.


Interesting tidbits buried in annual Kentucky economic report

March 22, 2015

When the University of Kentucky’s Gatton College of Business publishes its annual Kentucky Economic Report, most people just pay attention to the front of the book, which predicts whether the state’s economy will rise or fall, and by how much.

But I think the rest of the book is more interesting. It is filled with great bits of information that not only tell us about the economy, but offer some clues about the state of Kentucky society, too.

Here are a few gleanings from the 2015 report, published last month by Christopher Bollinger, director of the college’s Center for Business and Economic Research:

CBER■ Kentucky’s landscape may be mostly rural, but its economy is all about cities. The “golden triangle” bounded by Lexington, Louisville and Cincinnati contains half the state’s population, 59 percent of the jobs and 54 percent of the businesses.

■ Wages in metro counties in 2012, the most recent figures available, were 29 percent higher than in “mostly rural” counties and 20 percent higher than in “somewhat rural” counties.

■ How can rural counties improve wage rates? The report offers advice from Mark Drabenstott, director of the Center for the Study of Rural America: encourage home-grown entrepreneurs, “think and act regionally” and find a new economic niche in high-value, knowledge-based industries that leverage the region’s strengths.

■ If you feel like you haven’t had a raise in years, you are probably right. Kentucky’s average weekly wage, when adjusted for inflation, is about the same as it was in the first quarter of 2007.

■ Kentucky’s poor and lower middle-classes have gotten 4.4 percent poorer since the late 1970s, while the state’s middle class has lost 7.5 percent in inflation-adjusted household income. Upper middle-class Kentuckians have seen household income rise 7.7 percent, while the richest 10 percent have seen a rise 16.7 percent. All segments of Kentuckians did much worse than their peers nationally.

■ Kentucky’s earned income per-capita relative to the national average increased steadily from 1960 to 1977 and peaked at 80 percent. But it has fallen since 1977 and is now at 75.4 percent, ranking Kentucky 46th among the states.

■ Lexington and Louisville have seen steady employment gains since 2010 or early 2011 and have returned to or exceeded their pre-recession highs.

■ The disappearance of family farms isn’t news, but the report has some interesting statistics. Kentucky has roughly one-third the number of farms it had in 1950 and the average farm size has doubled. Kentucky lost 8,196 farms during the 2007-2012 recession, the largest decrease of any state. Most of that decline was likely farms going “idle” rather than being developed, the report said.

■ There has been a marked increase in value-added farm products such as jams, salsa, wine and jerky. The production of value-added foods, adjusted for inflation, has risen from $3.34 billion in 1993 to $5.1 billion in 2011.

■ While tobacco has declined sharply, the value of the state’s other major crops — corn, soybeans, hay and wheat — has improved considerably. The most dramatic growth has been in poultry. Broilers (chickens raised for food) are now Kentucky’s most-valuable farm commodity; chicken eggs are 10th and farm chickens are 12th.

■ What Kentucky industry sector has lost the most jobs in the past 25 years? If you guessed coal, you’re wrong. Kentucky in 2013 had 45,000 fewer manufacturing jobs than it did in 1990, a 16 percent decline. The sector that gained the most jobs was educational and health services: 103,700 more people work in those areas, a 67 percent increase.

■ There were 364,000 more Kentuckians employed in 2013 than in 1990, a 25 percent increase, beating the population increase of 19 percent. About 95,400 Kentuckians work for companies that are majority foreign owned.

■ In various measures of “community strength,” Kentucky is on par or better than the national average. Crime rates are lower. Kentuckians tend to trust their neighbors more. They report higher levels of “emotional support and life satisfaction.” But they give less to charity and volunteer less than the national average.

There’s more good stuff in the 2015 Kentucky Annual Economic Report. To download a full copy, click this link.


Backpackers walking in the footsteps of Daniel Boone

March 21, 2015

150319BooneTrace0086Curtis Penix, left, and Givan Fox, hiked last Thursday in Laurel County along the historic route of Boone Trace, the 200-mile path Daniel Boone and his crew blazed through the Cumberland Gap to Central Kentucky in March 1775. Penix’s 5th-great-grandfather, Joshua Penix, took the path to Fort Boonesborough in 1779. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

RACCOON SPRINGS — As dawn broke, backpackers Curtis Penix and Givan Fox emerged from their shelter, rubbed their eyes and filled their water bottles from natural springs that trickled out of a hillside.

Daniel Boone camped here many times and drank from the same springs, which he supposedly named after being startled by a thirsty raccoon.

This became a busy way station along Boone Trace, the 200-mile trail that Boone and his crew blazed for the Transylvania Company from Cumberland Gap to Central Kentucky in March 1775. Raccoon Springs is now in Laurel County, a few miles southeast of London.

Penix, a steel mill worker from Michigan, was here because his fifth-great grandfather, Joshua Penix, walked Boone Trace in 1779 on his way to Fort Boonesborough, where he was listed among the settlers.

Fox was here because his father, retired Lexington physician John Fox, is president of Friends of Boone Trace, a non-profit group that hopes to preserve the historic route as a hiking trail, walking paths and a memorial to the pioneers.

Penix, 46, and Fox, 42, think they may be the first people in two centuries to walk all of Boone Trace.

“There’s so much history here,” Penix said. “Millions of Americans today, just like me, have ancestors who came through Cumberland Gap into Kentucky. ”

150319BooneTrace0005While many of the well-worn buffalo and Native American paths Boone incorporated into his trail are now country roads, railroad tracks and even major highways, other sections of Boone Trace have all but disappeared.

Penix started his journey March 10 near Kingsport, Tenn. He hiked through Virginia to Martin’s Station near Cumberland Gap, where on March 15 he was joined by Fox, a medic in the Colorado National Guard.

The men carry a satellite communicator that transmits their position every 20 minutes to Penix’s website, Lostinthewander.com, where they blog daily about their experiences.

“The first four days were rough, nothing but rain and highway,” Penix said when I met them at Raccoon Springs Thursday. “No Indians, but a lot of semi-trucks, a lot of spray in the face.”

After several days of walking 20 miles or more, the two planned a slightly easier schedule. They were to stop at the sites of other Boone Trace landmarks, such as Twetty’s Fort and Woods Blockhouse, before completing their journey Thursday at Fort Boonesborough State Park on the Madison-Clark county line. After a ceremony there, they plan a big steak dinner and a lot of rest.

Boone Trace is often confused with the Wilderness Road, which was built later and became more popular, especially after Kentucky achieved statehood in 1792 and state government funded improvements.

The two roads ran together through Cumberland Gap, but split below London. Boone Trace went to the Kentucky River at Fort Boonesborough, while the Wilderness Road went to Harrodsburg and on to what is now Louisville.

“Everybody talks about the Wilderness Road and forgets about Boone Trace,” John Fox said. “Once Daniel Boone opened the trail, people just flooded in. About 100,000 people may have traveled it before Kentucky became a state.”

The Daughters of the American Revolution placed stone markers at several key points along the route in 1915. Other groups added markers in 1942, the 150th anniversary of Kentucky statehood.

But, over the years, the markers became overgrown and were forgotten as highways were improved. Many sections of Boone Trace were lost until Louisville architect Neal Hammon began researching it in the 1960s. He and others remapped the trail by using computer technology to piece together old records.

Penix familiarized himself with the route by studying maps and satellite images. He worked with John Fox to get permission to cross private land. Fox is providing occasional support from his pickup truck, but his son and Penix are carrying all of their camping gear and food.

“It was suggested by some people that we do it in buckskins and linen shirts,” Penix said. “There’s just no way we would have survived.”

Penix got into trouble early in his walk, when he was forced to spend a night in a motel after days of cold rain left him soaked and in danger of hypothermia. “I had the idea of doing this kind of independent,” he said. “I was going to carry my own food, sleep under the stars the way Joshua did, cross rivers the way Joshua did.”

Penix said he learned a lesson in Rose Hill, Va., when he couldn’t find his planned campsite and a store owner offered him shelter in a storage unit. As he was about to go to sleep on its concrete floor, Pam Eddy, a ranger from nearby Cumberland Gap National Park, came by.

Eddy persuaded him to stay the night at her cabin. And she explained that pioneer culture was as much about helping one another as being self-reliant.

“This was a community,” Penix said. “There were people all along the way with forts and blockhouses and stations where people could stop and rest and get a meal, get resupplied.”

Throughout their journey, Penix said, they have been met by town mayors, local historians and a lot of friendly, helpful people.

“We’ve been fed along the way, offered roofs along the way, just like the pioneers,” he said. “So when I wanted to do it just like Grandpa Joshua, I had it all wrong. I learned how to do it right.”

 

 

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:

 


Despite moves from Argentina to Alaska, writer rooted in Kentucky

March 17, 2015

Nearly 40 years after he left Lexington in search of language, literature and academic adventure from one end of the Americas to the other, Johnny Payne said he still gets emotional each time he flies into Blue Grass Airport.

“I’ve lived many beautiful places,” said Payne, a novelist, poet and playwright. “But when the plane is coming in over those fields, I just get teary-eyed every time. This is the most beautiful place in the world. It’s kind of my mythic space.”

Payne has lived in nine states, Peru and Argentina. He now teaches English at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he and his wife, Juana, and their three dogs live atop an isolated mountain in a yurt — a round wooden hut.

Their nearest neighbors are foxes and moose, and temperatures can reach 20 below zero. But, he said, Lexington got a lot more snow this winter than they did.

PaynePayne’s plane touched down Saturday for a visit with family and to give two talks about his newest book, “Vassal” (Mouthfeel Press, $16), a re-imagining of The Odyssey, Homer’s epic poem from the 8th century BC.

He will speak at 4 p.m. Wednesday at Transylvania University’s Cowgill Center, Room 102, and at 7 p.m. Thursday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers. Both events are free and open to the public.

Payne’s 10th book grew out of re-reading The Odyssey and writing a poem about it that an editor urged him to expand it into a book.

“I was coming to terms with myself at this time in my life,” Payne said, and he identified with the ancient Greek hero Odysseus and his decade-long journey home. “A book can be very personal without talking directly about my own experience.”

Payne, 56, and I were friends at Lafayette High School, where he says Spanish teacher Marcia Miller was the best teacher he ever had. She gave him the confidence to go to college. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Indiana University, a master’s at the University of Alabama and a doctorate at Stanford University.

As a 22-year-old graduate student, Payne learned the Quechua language and traveled to mountain villages in Peru recording the stories of peasant farmers. He translated them into Spanish, and after finishing his academic project edited them into a book for Peruvian children.

“That’s the most unusual thing I did in my life, and it made me really happy,” he said. “I wasn’t trained in that area; I just did it. I could never do it now. I would have too much self-doubt.”

Payne taught at Northwestern University and started two master of fine arts programs in creative writing. The MFA program at the University of Texas-El Paso that he founded and directed for eight years is the nation’s only bilingual English-Spanish program.

“It was very quickly successful and probably the most significant thing I’ve done in my career,” he said.

Payne thought he wanted to be a dean, so he moved to the University of Alaska at Fairbanks to head the College of Liberal Arts. Within a year, he realized he hated high-level administration and stepped down to teach and write.

He comes home occasionally to visit his parents, John and Joy Payne, but returns to Kentucky most often in his imagination. Six of his books are set completely or partly in Kentucky. A musical play, “The Devil in Disputanta,” is named for the Rockcastle County community where generations of Payne’s ancestors farmed.

His other books have been set in Europe and Latin America, including his first novel written in Spanish, “La Muerte de Papi” (2014). Payne recently finished a novel about an Irish serial killer in 1840s London, and he is working on a book of poetry about people’s complex relationships with technology.

Payne said he keeps returning to Kentucky in fiction not because of nostalgia but for the state’s rich storytelling possibilities.

“It really ripens in your imagination,” Payne said. “You kind of have an objective distance where you see it in your mind’s eye, and half of it you invent. It’s this quest of always finding a new Lexington and new Kentucky.”


Workshop offers businesses ideas for saving green by going green

March 15, 2015

Businesses are taking more interest in environmental sustainability, and not just because it is popular with customers and good for the planet. It also can help their bottom line.

Bluegrass Greensource, a non-profit organization that works to promote sustainability in 18 Central Kentucky counties, expects a good crowd March 20 for its sixth annual awareness workshop, Go Green, Save Green.

“The workshop is designed to give you ways to save money,” said Schuyler Warren, the Lexington-based organization’s outreach specialist. “It’s not just about doing it because it’s the right thing to do. It’s a smart business decision.”

BGGreenPosterThe full-day workshop, which about 100 people attended last year, features speakers on a variety of topics, such as improving energy efficiency, storm water management, recycling and waste reduction and sustainable construction and landscaping.

It will include information about grants available to help cover the cost of some sustainability efforts.

Because the workshop is sponsored by Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, the cost of attending is only $25 for adults and $5 for students, which includes a “zero waste” breakfast and lunch from Dupree Catering and a drink ticket for a social event afterward at Blue Stallion Brewery. (Day-of registration is $40.)

For registration and more information, go to: Bggreensource.org.

“This workshop is a great way to get inspired,” Warren said. “You can get some ideas, and then we can work with you to implement those things.”

The focus of this year’s workshop is energy efficiency, where the costs of improvements can be recouped through lower utility bills. There also will be a presentation by people who have been working on some remarkable energy-saving projects as part of West Liberty’s reconstruction from a devastating tornado three years ago.

Other speakers will focus on less-obvious topics, such as how companies can make it easier for employees to bicycle to work. That reduces traffic, pollution and oil consumption for society, but it also can help businesses cut absenteeism and health care costs by helping employees become more physically fit.

The workshop will be at the new campus of Bluegrass Community and Technical College on Newtown Pike. Included are tours of BCTC’s LEED-certified classroom building and nearby Lexmark facilities.

Last year’s workshop inspired Good Foods Co-op on Southland Drive to plan a renovation of its parking lot this summer to incorporate permeable paving, said Rob Walker, a store manager.

The new paving should help solve the parking lot’s storm water drainage issues, Walker said, as well as help protect Wolf Run Creek, which runs behind the store and has been the focus of extensive neighborhood efforts to improve water quality.

“That’s going to be a great improvement,” he said, adding that the store also is looking at money-saving strategies with energy-efficient lighting he learned about. “It’s an excellent workshop.”

Katie Pentecost, a landscape architect with Integrated Engineering, said last year’s workshop gave her new information about sustainability grants, which some of her clients have been able to get for their construction projects.

“I got way more out of it than I ever thought I would,” she said.

The workshop is part of a city-sponsored program called Live Green Lexington, which includes free year-around consulting services in Fayette County provided by Bluegrass Greensource.

But Bluegrass Greensource doesn’t just work with businesses, and it doesn’t just work in Fayette County.

For example, the organization has a series of workshops from April to June for residents of Clark, Scott, Woodford, Jessamine, Madison and Bourbon counties to help them learn how to install low-maintenance “rain gardens” to handle storm water runoff. The workshops are free, and residents of those counties may be eligible for $250 grants to purchase native plants for their rain gardens.

“The goal is to put a lot of options on your radar,” Warren said. “Things change so fast. I’m a sustainability professional, and every year there are a couple of new things for me that I didn’t know about.”


New MACED president says timing right for new ideas in E. Ky.

March 14, 2015

Peter Hille first came to Eastern Kentucky the day after he graduated from high school. He and other members of his Missouri church youth group piled into vans and drove to Breathitt County to run a summer camp for kids.

“I had this image in my head, probably from watching CBS documentaries on the War on Poverty, that Appalachia was black and white,” he said. “I got down here, and, of course, it was green.

“It was the first week in June,” he said. “You know how the mountains are the first week in June: fireflies all over the hillsides and locusts singing. I thought, I love this place!”

Hille, 59, has nurtured that love for more than four decades, and he is now in a unique position to express it: as the new president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, a non-profit organization based in Berea that works throughout southern Appalachia.

Hille, a graduate of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, moved to Eastern Kentucky in 1977 and spent more than a dozen years as a woodworker, cabinetmaker and home builder. It gave him an appreciation for the challenges so many Appalachians face.

“They know this is where they want to be,” he said. “But it’s real challenging to figure out how to earn a living.”

150315PeterHilleHille got into community work and spent 22 years at Berea College’s Brushy Fork Institute, which develops community leaders.

He served nine years on MACED’s board and was chairman until he joined the staff three years ago as executive vice president. He was named president last month, succeeding Justin Maxson, who left after 13 years to become executive director of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Hille is currently chair of the Eastern Kentucky Leadership Foundation, a board member of the Central Appalachian Institute for Research and Development and an advisory board member for the Institute for Rural Journalism. In the 1990s, he was facilitator for the Kentucky Appalachian Task Force.

“I do feel like everything I’ve done up to this point has been leading up to this,” said Hille, who lives with his wife, artist Debra Hille, in a passive solar house on a wooded farm near Berea.

Founded in 1976, MACED has become a respected voice in discussions about Appalachia’s economic transition. It promotes enterprise development, renewable energy and sustainable forestry. MACED also has become an influential source of public policy research through its Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

“We are at such an exciting time in Eastern Kentucky,” Hille said. “The challenges are as great as they’ve always been, but I think we’ve got some opportunities now that we haven’t always had.”

Perhaps the biggest opportunity, Hille said, is the bipartisan Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative launched by Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers in 2013.

“It is the kind of clarion call for unity that we so badly need in the region,” he said.

Another opportunity is the Obama administration’s proposal to release $1 billion in Abandoned Mine Lands funds for environmental reclamation and economic development in mining regions.

“We would have to scramble to figure out how to make good use of that money,” he said. “But I think there are a lot of ways to do it.”

While coal will continue to be important to Eastern Kentucky for decades, it will never be what it was, Beshear and Rogers have said. That acknowledgment creates an opening for new and creative thinking, Hille said.

More emphasis should be put on developing renewable energy sources and focusing on energy efficiency. MACED has worked on home energy-saving retrofits for years.

“However much we can scale that up, that is money that is invested in the region, that stays in the region, that is paid back from the savings in the region,” he said.

But the biggest goals should be creating more entrepreneurs and businesses in Eastern Kentucky, and attracting more investment capital. Hille thinks the place to start is by looking at the region’s needs, such as better housing and health care.

“All of those needs represent economic development opportunities,” he said. “What are the opportunities to meet those needs in the region? Or is the first step in health care getting in the car and driving to Lexington?”

Another focus should be on regional assets, such as forested mountains that could be sustainably managed for long-term jobs in timber, forest products, agriculture and tourism. “We haven’t invested in enough possibilities,” he said.

Part of the challenge is changing century-old attitudes about work.

“Instead of trying to find somebody to give you a job, it’s about creating a job for yourself,” he said. “It’s about feeding that entrepreneurial spirit in young people, and then creating the entrepreneurial ecosystem that is going to support those budding entrepreneurs and encourage them to stay here.”

When a region is economically distressed, it means markets are broken in fundamental ways. Government and non-profit assistance may be needed to fix them. But long-term success will only come with the development of strong markets and capital within Eastern Kentucky.

“With economic development, you’ve always got to ask, ‘Where does the investment come from? What kind of jobs are being created?'” Hille said. “In the long run, if we’re only creating jobs and we’re not building assets, if we’re not creating durable capital in the region, if we’re not building sustainable businesses and industries, then outside investments may or may not serve the needs of our communities.”


New film tells the stories of groundbreaking Kentucky women

March 7, 2015

150308KyWomen0002Willa Beatrice Brown of Glasgow was a pioneering black woman aviator in the 1930s. She and her husband operated a flight school that trained 200 black pilots during World War II for the famed Tuskegee Airmen unit. She is featured in the film “Dreamers & Doers: VOICES of Kentucky Women.” Photo provided

 

When women demanded the right to vote a century ago, men scoffed.

“Masculine females, members of the shrieking sisterhood,” Henry Watterson, editor of The Courier-Journal in Louisville, called the suffragettes. “I doubt nine of 10 women would know what to do with the ballot if they had it. Politics will only pollute their domestic interests and coarsen their feminine character.”

Such comments did not deter several Kentucky women who would gain national prominence as progressive reformers, including Josephine Henry, sisters Laura and Mary B. Clay and Madeline McDowell Breckinridge, whose husband edited the Lexington Herald.

“Kentucky women are not idiots,” Breckinridge wrote to Gov. James McCreary in 1915, “even though they are closely related to Kentucky men.”

These four women’s stories are among 40 featured in a new film, Dreamers & Doers: VOICES of Kentucky Women, sponsored by the Kentucky Commission on Women.

The documentary by Lexington filmmaker Michael Breeding will have its first premiere on Tuesday in Frankfort, followed by three more across the state, including Lexington, and will eventually be shown on KET. DVDs of the film will be sent to every state middle and high school.

Madeline McDowell Breckinridge

Madeline McDowell Breckinridge

“We came to the conclusion that the role of women in Kentucky had never been recorded and disseminated as widely as it should be,” said Linda Roach, a commission member. “We want people to see this and say, ‘I never knew about that woman! Look what she did!'”

Trying to do justice to Kentucky’s long list of outstanding women in an hour-long film was a challenge for Breeding, an independent filmmaker who has a dozen shows in the KET catalog, including last year’s, Kentucky Governor’s Mansion: A Century of Reflection.

Breeding started with 69 names from Kentucky Women Remembered, an exhibit at the State Capitol. In the final selection, he looked for racial and geographic diversity and pioneering women who made contributions in a variety of areas, including politics, education, medicine, the arts, athletics and entertainment.

Martha Layne Collins, who in 1983 became Kentucky’s first and only woman governor, helps connect these women’s stories as the film’s narrator. Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen and several other women add commentary.

First lady Jane Beshear and Madeline Abramson, wife of former Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson, were instrumental in creating the film, as was Eleanor Jordan, the commission’s executive director, Breeding said.

Major funding for the film came from Toyota, The Gheens Foundation, Frontier Nursing University, the Kentucky Arts Council and the commission’s foundation.

Some women featured in the film are familiar figures: politicians Thelma Stovall, Georgia Davis Powers and Mae Street Kidd; singers Rosemary Clooney, Loretta Lynn and Jean Ritchie; and Frontier Nursing Service founder Mary Breckinridge.

But what makes the film fresh are the stories of many lesser-known but no-less fascinating Kentucky women.

What Mary Breckinridge was to poor mountain children in Eastern Kentucky, Dr. Grace James (1923-1989) was to poor inner-city children in Louisville.

The pediatrician, who began a practice in 1953 when city hospitals were segregated by law, also was the first black faculty member of the University of Louisville’s medical school.

Nettie Depp was the first woman elected to public office in Barren County. She was county school superintendent from 1913-1917, and she took the job very seriously.

She repaired dilapidated rural schools, built new ones and added libraries. She initiated a uniform curriculum, created the county’s first four-year high school and fined parents who refused to send their children to school. During her tenure, county school attendance tripled.

Depp was the great-great aunt of actor Johnny Depp and Lexington sculptor Amanda Matthews, who is working on a statue of Nettie Depp she hopes to have placed in the State Capitol.

Rose Monroe, a Pulaski County native, became a feminist symbol during World War II when she worked at a Michigan factory building B-24 bombers. She was the model for the “Rosie the Riveter” image on the iconic “We Can Do It!” poster.

An even bigger contributor to the war effort was Willa Beatrice Brown of Glasgow, a pioneering black female pilot, aircraft mechanic and flight instructor. She earned business degrees from Indiana and Northwestern universities, but continued her education at Chicago’s Aeronautical University, earning commercial pilot’s and master aviation mechanic’s licenses.

Brown and her husband, Cornelius, operated a flight school in the 1930s that trained nearly 200 pilots who became part of the famous Tuskegee Airmen unit during World War II.

“These women … opened doors that other women walk through,” Roach said. “It’s important for girls today to look at these women and say, ‘If she could do it, why not me?'”

To learn more

For information about the documentary’s showings, including one in Lexington scheduled for April 9 at the Kentucky Theatre, go to https://secure.kentucky.gov/formservices/Women/Voices/

150308KyWomen0001Martha Layne Collins, the only woman to serve as Kentucky’s governor, narrates the film “Dreamers & Doers: VOICES of Kentucky Women”, which has its first premiere on March 10. Photo provided

 


On the hot seat with redistricting, Alan Stein ignores the noise

March 3, 2015

When I first heard that Alan Stein had agreed to chair the Fayette County Public Schools’ redistricting committee, I thought: Has he lost his mind?

“That’s what everybody says,” Stein said with a laugh. “To some degree that is still a question being asked, mostly by me.”

Stein, a business consultant who brought minor-league baseball to Lexington, is one of the most civic-minded people I know. He championed a school tax increase. He helped revive Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Bluegrass. He is Commerce Lexington’s chair-elect.

But few tasks are as complicated and thankless as redrawing school boundaries. No matter what happens, somebody will be angry.

Redistricting is an emotional issue, because it affects children’s futures and parents’ home values. It can bring out ugly issues of race, class and selfishness. Even at its best, it involves change, and nobody likes change.

The year-long process is coming to a close, so I sat down with Stein this week to talk about it.

In the past, Fayette County school officials redrew boundaries and then sought public comment. This time, the school board appointed a 24-member citizens committee to study the issues and make recommendations.

SteinAlthough school boundaries must be redrawn every few years because of changing population and demographics, this redistricting was prompted by the planned construction of several new schools.

The school board gave the committee a list of guiding principles to consider. “They’re all over the place, and they’re contradictory,” Stein said.

The committee decided to focus on a few of them: minimize disruption; try to keep neighborhoods together and kids close to home; and achieve more balance in race and income among schools when possible.

One thing the committee did not consider was how redistricting would affect individual property values. “For us, it’s a zero-sum game district-wide,” he said.

Parents want their children to attend high-performing schools, rather than low-performing schools. Knowing what makes the difference is not rocket science, Stein said. It comes down to school leadership, parent involvement and resources.

“All of these issues of performance in schools have virtually nothing to do with race,” Stein said. “It’s about poverty. It’s how involved can the parents be, how involved do they choose to be and what resources can they bring to the table.”

Stein cites the example of Ashland Elementary, which was one of the district’s worst-performing schools in the 1990s. Earlier this year, one ranking service rated it as Kentucky’s best public elementary school.

Previous redistricting increased the affluence of its student population somewhat. But the main reasons for Ashland’s turnaround were a good principal and faculty and neighborhood parents who decided to send their kids there and get involved.

“It’s a good example of what can happen,” Stein said. “Every school in our district has the opportunity to be successful.”

Still, poverty is a big issue, and it is getting worse. A decade ago, 27 percent of Fayette students were eligible for free or reduced lunch. Now, it is 54 percent. By 2020, it is projected to be 60 percent.

“We’re losing the middle class,” Stein said. “The income inequality in America is just obscene. It’s obscene to me, and I’m one of the rich guys.”

Some of Lexington’s deepest poverty pockets are in minority neighborhoods.

“Most people would be extraordinarily surprised to learn how segregated, unfortunately, Lexington is,” he said. “You can see it starkly on our maps.”

Stein is proud of how transparent the redistricting process has been, with four listening sessions, dozens of always-open meetings and more than 1,000 written comments from the public.

He thinks this redistricting will achieve good results: less overcrowding at many schools, more kids at schools close to their homes and fewer split-up neighborhoods.

When final lines are drawn, Stein estimates that only 4,000 to 7,000 of the district’s 40,000 students will change schools, and about 2,300 of those will be going to the new schools.

“We’re not going to be as successful as I personally would like us to be in terms of attaining a balance in socio-economic diversity,” he said. “But we’re going to be a heck of a lot better than what we were.”

Stein expects the committee to recommend moving some special academic programs from one school to another to attract affluent families and improve socio-economic diversity.

Parents in some neighborhoods have been especially vocal in the process.

“All of these neighborhoods print up colored T-shirts to show solidarity or whatever; it’s almost comical,” Stein said. “I wish I had started a T-shirt business.

“But we can’t pay attention to the noise. It’s going to be there no matter what we do. You just say let’s try to do what’s right for all 40,000 kids as best we can.”


UK Venture Challenge helps college entrepreneurs refine their ideas

March 1, 2015

150228UKVenture0178Mark Manczyk explained his idea for re.3, a company that would sell sustainable consumer goods, Saturday at the UK Venture Challenge. His presentation won first prize, a $1,500 scholarship, and he will go on to the next level of competition.  The second-place winner was Phillip Gordon, below. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

It takes more than a good idea to create a successful business. But the best way for an entrepreneur to start is to make his or her idea as good as it can be.

That is the focus of the University of Kentucky’s Venture Challenge, a competition for student entrepreneurs. The fourth annual challenge was held Saturday morning at the William T. Young Library auditorium.

Ten teams pitched business ideas to a panel of three judges, who chose three winners to share $3,000 in scholarship prizes. The first- and second-place finishers advanced to regional and state competitions sponsored by the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development.

“It’s a great exercise, because learning how to develop ideas is so important,” said Randall Stevens, a Lexington technology entrepreneur who was one of the judges.

“Rarely is your first idea the one that’s going to make it.”

Judging with Stevens were Shirie Hawkins, director of UK’s Bluegrass Small Business Development Center, and George Ward, executive director of UK’s Coldstream Research Campus.

The winner, who received a $1,500 scholarship, was architecture student Mark Manczyk, 23, of Taylor Mill. He pitched his idea for a company called re.3.

150228UKVenture0030The company would sell consumer products with short use cycles — such as non-prescription sunglasses and iPhone cases — that are made by environmentally sustainable methods. The added touch would be that once a product had outlived its usefulness, the company would take it back for recycling.

The judges liked his idea because it was a creative approach to an issue that consumers are increasingly concerned about.

“It’s all about ‘Can you build that brand?'” Stevens told Manczyk, suggesting that he consider a “subscription club” sales model to better engage customers for repeat purchases.

“I think that was a fantastic idea,” Manczyk said afterward, because it could help create a customer community. “It’s about rethinking recycling: the object is in some ways less important than the idea of being able to continually recycle and reuse.”

The second-place winner’s business idea also came from a personal passion, which developed after Phillip Gordon was pickpocketed in Spain. Gordon wants to create Nomad Apparel, a line of travel clothing with a zippered and radio-frequency-protected pocket for safeguarding credit cards and other valuables.

Gordon, 22, from Louisville, has designed jeans with a special secure pocket. He wore a prototype to his presentation, which got high marks from the judges.

“It really gave me an opportunity to hone my presentation skills and public speaking,” Gordon said of the Venture Challenge.

Taylor Deskins and Jessica Shelton pitched an idea for a stock market-themed bar in downtown Lexington, where drink prices would fluctuate throughout the night to engage patrons. They had seen a similar place in Spain.

After they presented, Stevens suggested that rather than open their own bar, they first develop and market the concept to existing bars to use perhaps once a week, as a way to gauge the concept’s popularity with less investment.

Maged Saeed and Alexander Hamilton pitched The Bar Hop, a smartphone app that would leverage social media data to help users decide which bar to go to based on how many of their friends were there and the ratio of men and women in the place.

The students also envisioned tie-ins with ride services, such as Uber and Lyft, and functions for buying drinks. The judges thought it was a creative idea, but was trying to do too many things. Focus on the core idea, they said, and build from there.

Afterward, Saeed and Hamilton spent some time talking with Ward, whose business career has focused on the hospitality industry. He had several suggestions for rethinking their app to increase its likelihood of success.

Warren Nash, director of UK’s Von Allmen Center for Entrepreneurship, pointed over to them and smiled.

“That’s what I like,” he said. “Watching the after-discussions, talking about how do you get there, how do you make the connections.”

Sponsors of the UK Venture Challenge include UK’s Gatton College of Business and Economics and Innovation Network for Entrepreneurial Thinking, as well as the Bluegrass Business Development Partnership, a collaboration of UK, Commerce Lexington and the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government.

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:


Lectures show some Civil War issues still fresh as today’s headlines

February 28, 2015

abeEduardo Kobra’s Lexington mural of Abraham Lincoln. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

One great thing about living in this university city is that a lot of smart and interesting people come here to speak and you can hear them for free.

Two of my favorite annual events are the Kenan Lecture at Transylvania University and the Bale Boone Symposium, sponsored by the University of Kentucky’s Gaines Center for the Humanities.

Last month, the Bale Boone’s three speakers discussed the Civil War, which ended 150 years ago. Or did it?

Historian Ed Ayers, president of the University of Richmond in Virginia, gave a fascinating talk about the Civil War and how his school’s Digital Scholarship Lab is using technology to better illustrate and explain history.

Coleman Hutchison of the University of Texas talked about the history of the word and song Dixie, with all of their cultural symbolism and baggage.

The third talk was by David Blight, a Yale University history professor and acclaimed author, whose lecture title was a trick question: When Did the American Civil War End?

Blight’s answer was that it hasn’t. Sure, the shooting war stopped a century and a half ago. But the underlying issues — race, class, civil rights, social and economic justice, states’ rights and federalism — remain as fresh and raw as today’s headlines.

These lectures were not the familiar territory of Civil War buffs: armies, generals, battlefield maneuvers and what-might-have-beens. They explored how this epic conflict and its causes are still deeply embedded in our national psyche.

Consider, for example, states’ rights. Politicians in some states still try to “nullify” federal legislation, regulations and court rulings they don’t like. The Constitution’s intended balance between state and federal authority remains a source of dispute.

Now, as then, these disputes often boil down to whose rights are being served and whose are being ignored, Blight noted. At various times since the Civil War, the federal government has overruled state authority to protect civil rights, the environment and public health.

Liberty may be our most cherished freedom. But what does liberty mean? What happens when one person’s idea of liberty infringes upon the liberty of others?

For example, is government regulation of business an infringement on the liberty of business owners? Or is regulation necessary to keep some businesses from infringing on the liberty of other businesses, workers, citizens and communities?

The Federal Communications Commission’s decision last week on Internet regulation is a good example. Does “net neutrality” infringe on the liberty of Internet service providers, which often are monopolies, to maximize their investment? Or does it protect the liberty of consumers to access information and the liberty of other businesses to have a level playing field so they can compete in the marketplace?

Liberty’s double-edged sword is central to an issue many people think threatens the very survival of representative democracy in America since the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision in 2010.

Whose liberty should prevail? Is it the liberty of wealthy individuals and corporations to use unlimited funds to amplify their speech and buy influence? Or is it the liberty of everyone else to have a political process free of money’s corruption?

As the Civil War entered its final year, on April 18, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln discussed this philosophical question in a speech in Baltimore. He talked about liberty in the context of slavery, but his words speak eloquently to many of the political issues that bitterly divide us today.

“The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one,” Lincoln said. “We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.

“With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor.

“Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name — liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names — liberty and tyranny.”


How do you tell real war heroes from frauds? Listen for the silence

February 24, 2015

What is it about some successful men that they feel a need to be war heroes, too?

There is a long tradition of prominent men exaggerating their military service for no good reason. And there is an equally long tradition of journalists and veterans’ groups exposing them to public ridicule.

But it keeps on happening.

Robert McDonald, the secretary of veterans affairs, apologized this week after a TV news crew caught him telling a homeless man that he had served in special forces. McDonald graduated from West Point and Ranger school and served in the 82nd Airborne, but he wasn’t in special forces.

And then there are the TV stars who embellish their experiences as war correspondents.

This is a big deal because good journalism is about accuracy and the search for truth. Making up things destroys credibility, and without credibility, a journalist has nothing.

Brian Williams. AP Photo

Brian Williams. AP Photo

NBC News anchor Brian Williams was suspended earlier this month after he apologized for repeatedly telling how a helicopter in which he was riding while covering the Iraq War was hit by enemy fire. Actually, it was another helicopter in Williams’ group that was hit.

Williams said he “made a mistake in recalling” that key detail. NBC executives have reacted appropriately by suspending their top-rated anchor for six months. Many journalists think he should never return to that job.

Even more interesting is the case of Bill O’Reilly, the bombastic Fox News talk show host and commentator.

Mother Jones magazine last week called out O’Reilly for repeatedly stretching the truth about his experiences as a CBS correspondent in Argentina during the 1982 Falklands War.

In his 2001 book “The No Spin Zone,” and on his show, O’Reilly has claimed to have “survived a combat situation” and reported from “active war zones.” In reality, O’Reilly and other non-British journalists were kept hundreds of miles away from the fighting in the Falkland Islands during Great Britain’s 74-day war with Argentina.

What O’Reilly was referring to was a demonstration he covered in Buenos Aires that turned violent. He claims to have seen Argentine troops shoot and kill civilians. And on his show in 2013, he told a guest, “My photographer got run down and then hit his head and was bleeding from the ear on the concrete.”

Bill O'Reilly. AP Photo

Bill O’Reilly. AP Photo

O’Reilly’s former CBS colleagues have refuted his claims. They don’t recall any of their photographers being injured, and they note that there were no reports of civilian deaths that day.

Rather than apologize, O’Reilly has doubled-down on his claims and hurled insults at his critics and former colleagues. He called David Corn, the Mother Jones bureau chief in Washington who co-authored the story, “a liar”, “a despicable guttersnipe” and “a left-wing assassin.”

O’Reilly told a New York Times reporter who interviewed him about the controversy this week that if he didn’t like the story, “I am coming after you with everything I have. You can take it as a threat.”

What O’Reilly has not done is offer any evidence to support his claims or refute the Mother Jones story. But rather than suspend him, Fox News executives so far have given O’Reilly their full support.

O’Reilly and Fox News may not be concerned about their journalistic credibility, since they don’t really have any beyond their loyal base of conservative viewers.

But they may be underestimating the military combat veterans in their audience who will be offended by O’Reilly’s manufactured heroism.

That’s because combat veterans and war correspondents who have performed bravely under fire don’t go around bragging about it. Even when asked, many would rather not discuss it.

I have seen this many, many times. But the one I will always remember involved the most famous hero of World War I, Sgt. Alvin York of Tennessee.

I interviewed York’s widow, Gracie, four months before she died in 1984. She told me her husband never wanted to talk about the deeds that earned him the Medal of Honor.

“He never would, not even to me or the kids,” she said. “I guess he didn’t want to think about how bad it was in the war.”


In fight over payday lending abuses, it’s churches vs. almighty dollar

February 22, 2015

I love free enterprise, but I believe there is a special place in hell for business people who exploit the poor and vulnerable and politicians who enable them.

A good example is the payday lending industry.

A diverse coalition of Kentuckians, including conservative and liberal religious leaders, plan to gather Tuesday at the state Capitol to urge lawmakers to pass bipartisan legislation limiting the interest and fees on short-term payday loans to an annualized rate of 36 percent.

That is still high compared to normal borrowing costs. But it would be a big improvement over the 400 percent or more that payday lenders can now charge customers.

Photo illustration by Charles Bertram

Photo illustration by Charles Bertram

These two-week loans of $500 or less are designed to help working people cover expenses until their next paycheck. But studies show three-fourths of these loans are renewed or turned into new loans, sometimes trapping borrowers in an endless cycle of debt.

Payday lending emerged as an industry in the 1990s. With about 20,000 storefronts, plus online sites, payday lenders made $40.3 billion in loans and collected $7.4 billion in revenues in 2010, according to the Consumer Federation of America.

Kentucky is one of 32 states that allow triple-digit interest rates on payday loans. The state’s 781 payday lending stores in 2010 made $995.7 million in loans averaging $350 each, according to the Center for Responsible Lending.

Payday lenders collect at least $121 million a year in interest and fees from some of Kentucky’s poorest people, according to the Kentucky Coalition for Responsible Lending. Most profits go out of state — or farther. Advance America, one of Kentucky’s largest payday lenders, is owned by Mexico’s Grupo Elektra.

The Defense Department has limited the interest that can be charged to military personnel at 36 percent, as the Kentucky legislation seeks to do for everyone. Kentucky has put a few restrictions on payday lenders in recent years, but meaningful reform has always been blocked by legislators with lame excuses.

This year’s bill is sponsored by Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, a Lexington Republican, and co-sponsored by three Senate Democrats, Reginald Thomas of Lexington, Gerald Neal of Louisville and Dennis Parrett of Elizabethtown. Gov. Steve Beshear has supported the interest rate cap since 2009.

Tuesday’s rally is organized by the Kentucky Coalition for Responsible Lending, an impressive list of 89 organizations, including 33 faith groups. Members include statewide associations of Roman Catholics, Baptists, Jews, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians and Disciples of Christ.

Many of these faith groups disagree on other issues. But the Bible’s Old and New Testaments are clear about the sin of “usury” — charging excessive (or, according to some verses, any) interest on loans to people in need.

With this level of religious support, you would think the bill would be a cinch. But there is a higher power at work: the almighty dollar. Payday lenders spent more than $151,000 last year lobbying legislators and gave them tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.

Legislators who have blocked this bill over the years have had many excuses: there is a demand for payday loans; people with bad credit have few alternatives; it’s free enterprise.

But the truth is there are alternatives, and poor people in the 18 states with double-digit interest caps have found them. Some credit unions, banks and community organizations have small loan programs for low-income people.

There could be more alternatives, too, if Congress would consider ideas such as allowing the Post Office to offer basic financial services, as is done in other countries, or giving poor people an advance on their earned income tax credit.

A bigger-picture solution, of course, would be to raise the minimum wage and rethink trickle-down economic policies that have decimated the middle class and widened the wealth gap to historic levels. But don’t hold your breath for that.

An additional excuse for legislative inaction this year is that Kentucky should wait to see what Congress and federal regulators do. The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau has begun a belated crackdown on payday lending practices.

But only Congress can cap rates at the federal level, and there is little chance of that from the business-friendly Republican majority. Rep. Andy Barr, a Lexington Republican, has been a shameless ally of payday lenders and other financial services companies, which contributed more than $700,000 to his re-election campaign.

I wish the consumer protection advocates and religious leaders good luck Tuesday, but they will need to make many more trips to Frankfort. I just hope they follow the money and keep a good list of which politicians are helping payday lenders prey on Kentucky’s poor and vulnerable — a list they will share widely at election time.


Amid slavery, some free blacks prospered in Antebellum Lexington

February 21, 2015

150220FreeBlacks0016Samuel Oldham, who bought his freedom and later that of his wife and children, build this house at 245 South Limestone in 1835. He owned barber shops and a spa. After years of neglect, the house was restored in 2007. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Slaves were everywhere in Lexington before the Civil War: cooking in white people’s kitchens, cleaning their houses, washing and mending their clothes and working in their hemp fields and factories.

Slaves also were on the auction block and whipping post at Cheapside and in three downtown “jails” that became major way stations in the Southern slave trade.

But a lesser-known piece of Lexington history is that many free blacks lived side-by-side with slaves and masters. The 1850 census showed the city with 8,159 residents, including 2,309 slaves and 479 free people of color.

Many were skilled craftsmen who had been given their freedom, or found ways to earn enough money to buy it. Once free, they often worked years to buy the freedom of their wives, children and other relatives.

Some free blacks became so financially successful that they built or bought fine homes for themselves, acquired rental property and helped their church congregations grow and prosper.

“There weren’t separate enclaves then,” said Yvonne Giles, who has extensively researched black history in Lexington. “They lived among the white community.”

Michael and Hannah Clarke built 344 South Upper St., left, about 1818. He was a waiter and carpenter; she a laundress and seamstress. At right is a rental house owned by another free black, blacksmith Rolla Blue, who lived on South Limestone.

Michael and Hannah Clarke built 344 South Upper St., left, about 1818. He was a waiter and carpenter; she a laundress and seamstress. At right is a rental house owned by another free black, blacksmith Rolla Blue, who lived on South Limestone.

That wasn’t for lack of racism. White people tolerated and, to some degree, accepted these free black masons, blacksmiths, plasterers, carpenters, coopers, barbers and confectioners because they had to.

“In order for Lexington to prosper, they needed these skilled laborers,” Giles said. “If they hassled them, they would have left. They didn’t go because they felt protected.”

Giles has searched census documents, court records and old newspapers to document the lives of many free blacks in antebellum Lexington. Others who also have researched the topic include historians Marion Lucas, Alicestyne Turley and Rachel Kennedy.

Their work reveals interesting lives of accomplishment, and legacies that still endure. No photographs of them are known to exist, Giles said. But the houses built or owned by several successful free blacks in the South Hill neighborhood have been restored into valuable historic homes.

Perhaps the best known today is Samuel Oldham, who built a handsome house at 245 South Limestone in 1835. After years of neglect and the threat of demolition, it was restored in 2007.

Oldham was a barber who bought himself out of slavery in 1826, then earned enough to free his wife, Daphney, and their two sons. He operated barbershops and a spa, helped other blacks with legal issues and bought freedom for several slaves.

James Turner and his wife, Arena, lived in the 1850s at 331 South Mill, the left side of this duplex. He was a plasterer and minister who after the Civil War was active in the establishment of black schools.

James Turner and his wife, Arena, lived in the 1850s at 331 South Mill, the left side of this duplex. He was a plasterer and minister.

Daphney Oldham, a seamstress, and her house were the inspiration for playwright Ain Gordon’s 2008 one-woman play, In This Place.

Michael and Hannah Clarke built 344 South Upper Street about 1818. He was a waiter and carpenter; she a laundress and seamstress. Billy and Hannah Tucker, who owned a confectionery shop downtown, lived at 521 South Upper in the 1840s.

Blacksmith Rolla Blue and his wife, Rachel, lived in a South Limestone house that no longer exists. But they owned 346 South Upper and rented it. Upon his death in the 1840s, Blue left a considerable estate with instructions that it be used to buy freedom for enslaved relatives.

James Turner and his wife, Arena, lived in the 1850s at 331 South Mill. He was a plasterer and minister who after the Civil War was active in black education.

Many of these men were important black community leaders and church trustees, in part because their freedom allowed them to borrow money and sign legal documents. They helped establish and grow some of Lexington’s most prominent black congregations, including First African Baptist, Historic Pleasant Green Baptist and Historic St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal.

Two well-known free black ministers were London Ferrill of First African Baptist Church and his successor, Frederick Braxton, who oversaw construction of the 1856 sanctuary that still stands at Short and Deweese streets. In the 1860s, Braxton helped start two other prominent Baptist churches, Main Street and Bracktown.

Still, Giles said, life could be precarious for free blacks in antebellum Lexington. They had to carry papers proving they were free. Even with papers, they lived in fear of being kidnapped and sold into slavery and of offending the wrong people.

“Being a free black didn’t mean you were really free,” she said. “If they didn’t stay on the good side of white people who would support and protect them, they were lost.”


Heirloom seed sale will help take mind off winter, feed neighbors

February 17, 2015

Looking for ways to cope with a foot of snow, single-digit temperatures and the virtual shutdown of Kentucky? Try sitting back, pouring a cup of coffee and planning your spring garden.

Then, when you have it all planned, make plans go to Woodland Christian Church on Feb. 28 for Glean KY’s seventh annual heirloom seed sale.

seedsaleThe sale is from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the church, 530 East High Street, across from Woodland Park. There will be seeds for a wide variety of vegetables and herbs — most of which you can’t buy at a big-box store.

“There’s a real market for these heirloom seeds, and I think we have just scratched the surface of that,” said Erica Horn, an attorney and accountant who helped start Glean KY and is its volunteer president. “It’s almost like a backyard gardener’s expo.”

Stephanie Wooten, Glean KY’s executive director and its only full-time employee, said the sale will offer information as well as seeds.

“We just finished a really great seed catalog that has all the instructions you need,” she said. “And we hope to have some experts at the sale so that as you are making your purchase, you can ask questions.”

The sale is the biggest annual fundraiser for Glean KY, formerly known as Faith Feeds, which for nearly five years has collected food that might otherwise have gone to waste and made it available to poor people.

Last year, Glean KY’s more than 300 volunteers collected nearly 270,000 pounds of surplus fruit and vegetables. The produce was redistributed through more than 50 Central Kentucky charities and organizations.

“We fill the gap by doing the labor to pick up that excess and get it to folks who distribute it to people who need it,” Horn said.

Glean KY began as Faith Feeds in March 2010. It was the brainchild of John Walker, an avid gardener who grew more food than he and his neighbors could use. He knew that there were many hungry people in Lexington, and he had heard of gleaning organizations elsewhere that tried to match surplus food with need.

photoVolunteers make regular stops at food stores to pick up produce and packaged foods nearing their sales-expiration date. The biggest suppliers include Costco Wholesale, Good Foods Co-op and Whole Foods Market.

During the growing season, volunteers also collect surplus produce from the Lexington and Bluegrass farmers markets, the University of Kentucky’s South Farm and Reed Valley Orchard near Paris.

That food is then taken to agencies including the Catholic Action Center, Nathaniel Mission and First Presbyterian Church that distribute food or meals to people in need.

Horn recalled the day after Thanksgiving last year when she picked up about 25 prepared vegetable trays that Costco had left over.

“I dropped them off at the Catholic Action Center, and when I was leaving the building, I could hear them in the kitchen roaring with excitement,” she said.

“I’ve been privileged to be involved with a lot of groups,” Horn said. “But I’ve never done anything that fulfills me personally as much as this group does.”

Most of Glean KY’s money comes from individual donations, which have grown from $2,000 in 2010 to about $50,000 last year. Other support has come from grants and fundraising events such as the heirloom seed sale.

Last November, the organization bought a van to help transport food with grants from the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels and Beaumont Presbyterian Church.

Another successful distribution network for Glean KY food is Christian and Tanya Torp’s home in Lexington’s East End neighborhood. For the past four years, they have picked up surplus from Whole Foods each Friday, and from Bluegrass Farmers Market each Saturday during the growing season.

The food is distributed to 20 to 40 people in their neighborhood, including several elderly and shut-in residents. Christian Torp, a lawyer who is on Glean KY’s board, also teaches classes for his neighbors in canning and food preservation.

The Torps hope to train other volunteers to do the same thing in their own neighborhoods. (Those interested in that or other volunteer opportunities can contact the organization at Gleanky.org.)

“It’s not just a handout thing,” Torp said. “Our point in doing this is to build community. It’s a beautiful representation of being neighbors.”


50 years later, Berea alumni say Selma march changed their lives

February 15, 2015

150215Berea-Selma0008Berea College student Mike Clark took these photos as one of 58 students and faculty to join the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march in 1965.  The students carried a banner and signs with the college’s mottos. At left of the banner is freshman Ann Grundy, shown below in detail and today with her husband, Chester Grundy. Photos by Mike Clark and Tom Eblen

 

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. put out a call in the spring of 1965 for people to come to Alabama and march for civil rights, college students across the country jumped at the chance. College presidents shuddered.

Alabama cops and racist thugs had beaten previous marchers, killing two. University administrators worried about the safety of students, the fears of parents and the anger of conservative donors and community members.

Officials at Berea College, the South’s oldest interracial school, had an additional complication as campus opinion split over the civil rights movement and its tactics.

“Berea’s motto is ‘God hath made of one blood all nations of men’,” recalled Ann Grundy, who was then a freshman and one of 35 blacks among Berea’s 1,400 students. “Why did they ever tell us that? It became our weapon. We hammered them across the head to let us go.”

Berea President Francis Hutchins refused to sanction the trip, even after students marched on his house. But his heart was with them.

“They realized that morally we were correct,” Grundy said. “They just had to find a way to do it.”

Clark031Hutchins quietly loaned them his car and helped rent a Greyhound bus so 58 students and teachers could join the triumphant final day of the march from Selma to Montgomery, which led to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The 50th anniversary is attracting a lot of attention this year, in part because of Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed film, Selma, a contender for the best-picture Oscar at the Academy Awards on Sunday.

A two-month commemoration began last week in Selma. Among the participants March 7-8 will be a busload of Berea students, faculty and alumni that will include Grundy and 10 others who made the first trip. Of the original 58, 43 are still alive.

This time, Berea’s participation is official, organized by Alicestyne Turley, an African and African American studies professor who directs the Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education.

Among other things, the group plans to attend festivities at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the first two of King’s three marches ended almost as soon as they began.

The first one, on March 7, 1965, became known as “Bloody Sunday” after police beat the peaceful marchers as they tried to cross the bridge. A second attempt two days later came to be called Turnaround Tuesday” because, when confronted by police, King led the marchers back to a church in Selma.

150202Grundys0005AKing then sought a federal court order to protect marchers on their journey to the state Capitol in Montgomery, as well as federal legislation protecting black people’s right to register and vote. On March 15, President Lyndon B. Johnson asked Congress for that legislation in a nationally televised speech.

The third and final march began March 21 under the protection of 4,000 federalized troops and law-enforcement officers. Limited by the court order to 300 marchers on narrow parts of the road to Montgomery, the protest swelled to more than 25,000 as they reached the Capitol on March 25.

The Berea group spent all night driving through Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama to join that final day of marching. They carefully planned their route to include rest and refueling stops at places where it would be safe for blacks and whites to be seen traveling together.

“There were many white people at Berea who stepped outside their comfort zone to help us,” Grundy said. “Without their support, it would not have happened.”

She remembers an electric atmosphere, with students singing civil rights songs and talking about issues all night.

“On the bus we talked a lot about why we were doing it,” she said. “I remember being nervous, but when you’re 18 years old, what do you know about fear?”

Grundy led much of the singing. A piano major, her father had been pastor of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, where, three years after his death, Klansmen placed a bomb that killed four girls attending Sunday school on Sept. 15, 1963.

When they arrived at a Catholic school complex outside Montgomery where thousands were waiting to join the marchers coming from Selma, the Bereans organized behind a banner painted with their school’s motto. They carried signs with another school motto, in Latin, which means “victory through suffering.”

“I felt sort of a oneness with all of the people there from all over the United States,” said John Fleming, another black Berea student who had participated in lunch counter sit-ins as a teenager in Morganton, N.C.

Fleming’s most vivid memories from that day are of watching people on the sidewalks as the march passed through Montgomery — the icy stares and slurs of whites and the joyful faces and cheers of blacks who had been warned not to join the protest.

“I wondered what they were all thinking,” he said. “And I realized that the only way change is going to happen is for individuals to make a decision that they are going to take a stand.”

150215Berea-Selma0002Berea student Mike Clark watched much of the day through the viewfinder of the school newspaper’s camera. He was the sports editor, but he learned to use the camera when the newspaper’s conservative photographer refused to make the trip.

“What I was looking at was pretty dramatic; all I needed to do was focus,” said Clark, who recently sent some of those old pictures to Berea.

Clark was a white boy from the North Carolina mountains. The first black people he ever met were chain-gang convicts who worked on the road outside his house. As a teenage restaurant cook, he worked for a black man he respected. Clark’s mother was a Christian who taught him that everyone deserved equal treatment.

He remembers running ahead of the march to take photographs as it approached the Capitol. There he encountered King and his lieutenants standing by the flatbed truck that would serve as the speakers’ platform for their rally.

“There was no security, so I just went up and chatted with them,” Clark recalled. “We were all just looking out at the crowd that stretched out in front of us for blocks. It was an inspiring moment. He had been a hero of mine for quite awhile, so to meet him personally was pretty cool.”

At the march’s dramatic conclusion, King and others spoke and Harry Belafonte and Peter, Paul and Mary sang. A line of police with billy clubs watched them from the Capitol steps.

“I can remember looking up at the state Capitol,” Grundy said, “and seeing (Gov.) George Wallace pulling back the curtain to peek and see what was going on.”

But Grundy’s most vivid memory was of a rest stop in Collinsville, Ala., on the way back that night. Zodia Belle Johnson Vaughn, the mother of black Berea freshman Robert Johnson, opened her home to the students and fed them delicious fried chicken, biscuits and collard greens.

“You know how they talk about Jesus and the miracle of the loaves and fishes? Well, he didn’t have anything on Mrs. Vaughan and her friends and neighbors,” Grundy said. “That to me was the highlight of the trip, because it demonstrated the many ways that people can support a struggle.”

After their return to campus, black students felt especially energized, and they focused that energy on Berea College.

Abolitionist John G. Fee founded the school in 1855 to educate freed blacks in an atmosphere of equality among the races and sexes. But in 1904, Kentucky legislators outlawed interracial education, and Berea refocused its mission on educating Appalachian white students of modest means.

Black students were once again admitted after the segregation law was repealed in 1950, but there were few of them — and no black faculty.

“Coming back from that trip we were definitely fired up,” Grundy said. “We really kicked in with the organization of the Black Student Union and started pressing Berea for black faculty, black staff, more students, more black course work.

Today, Berea’s student body of nearly 1,600 is 19 percent black, 4 percent Latino, 4 percent other minorities and 10 percent international. But the faculty remains 86 percent white — a sore point with some black alumni.

The Selma-to-Montgomery marches marked an historic watershed for the nation, and it shaped many of those Berea students for the rest of their lives.

“It perhaps set the tone for what I was going to do in the future, said Fleming, who would earn a doctorate at Howard University and become the founding director of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center and director of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Clark became a journalist, working for fearless publishers Tom and Pat Gish at the Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg. But he soon left journalism for a career in social justice and environmental activism, leading such organizations as Greenpeace and Tennessee’s legendary Highlander Research and Education Center.

Grundy and her husband, Chester, became lifelong civil rights activists who for more than four decades have organized the annual Martin Luther King Day festivities in Lexington that have included such speakers as Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

“I think most of us look back on the march with a great deal of honor and pride,” Grundy said. “I could almost feel myself growing up. I sometimes say I never got over it.”

 

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:

 


Amid infill construction, how do we help ‘little guys’ already there?

February 15, 2015

150212Downtown0005The Lexington Parking Authority last week created four temporary street parking spaces and a loading zone to help F‡ilte Irish Imports and other nearby businesses that have been hurt by disruption caused by construction of CentrePointe construction, right, and renovation of 21C Museum Hotel in the background. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

The Great Depression left one-fourth of American workers without jobs in 1933, prompting the new president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to launch a series of relief efforts known as the New Deal.

When conservatives in Congress balked, arguing that market forces would sort out things in the long run, New Deal architect Harry Hopkins famously replied: “People don’t eat in the long run. They eat every day.”

I have been thinking about that quote since November, when a mutual friend told me that Liza Hendley Betz’s little shop was in trouble.

I have known Betz since soon after she opened Fáilte Irish Imports on South Limestone Street in 2001. She did a good business in Celtic gifts and comfort food for her fellow Irish immigrants until the street in front of her shop was suddenly closed in 2009 for an 11-month reconstruction project.

Betz moved Fáilte (pronounced FALL-cha) a couple of blocks away, next to McCarthy’s Irish Bar. It was a great location until the CentrePointe project turned the block across from them into a massive hole and took away their street parking.

Then, renovation of the 21C Museum Hotel closed Upper Street above their block and constricted Main Street traffic. People started avoiding the mess, and Fáilte’s business suffered.

After I wrote about it, Lexington rallied to save the little shop. Thousands shared my column on social media. Other small businesses such as Bourbon ‘n Toulouse restaurant and the Cup of Common Wealth coffee shop sent their customers to Fáilte. Even the mayor’s staff stopped in for holiday shopping.

“People came out of the woodwork,” Betz said. “It was the best Christmas ever.”

With St. Patrick’s Day approaching, Betz and the owner of McCarthy’s recently asked city and LexPark officials if one of their street’s two lanes could be closed for parking until Upper Street above them reopened. The officials thought it was a great idea. Last week, four metered parking spaces and a loading zone were created.

While I am happy things are working out for Fáilte, there is a bigger issue here worth serious thought and action.

With Lexington’s new focus on infill and redevelopment, the central business district could be a rolling construction zone for years to come. If we are lucky.

That will be great for Lexington in the long run. In the short run, though, specific strategies should be developed to help small shops, restaurants and bars remain open amid the mess and disruption.

Most of these entrepreneurs don’t have deep pockets. But their businesses give downtown its unique character, and it is in Lexington’s best interests to keep them going.

How could Lexington minimize the collateral damage of infill and redevelopment? Several business people and city officials I talked with had good ideas. Among them:

■ When tax-increment financing districts are approved for new development, could some TIF funds be earmarked to help existing businesses during the transition? This help could range from cash compensation to special signage and other promotional help.

■ In addition to temporary parking solutions, might LexTran adjust routes to make it easier for customers to get to affected businesses?

■ Could local media companies offer discounted advertising to affected businesses, perhaps in return for long-term contracts?

■ Could city government appoint a liaison to work with affected business owners, to keep them informed of street closings and other disruptions, trouble-shoot problems and brainstorm ways to make things easier?

■ Could Commerce Lexington, Local First Lexington and other business organizations promote these businesses through social media and other venues?

■ Could the University of Kentucky business school’s faculty and students lend their expertise and advice?

■ Could developers of new projects be better neighbors, involving surrounding businesses in their construction planning process to minimize disruption?

Betz said she and other downtown entrepreneurs are excited about the changes happening around them. They know it will be good for their businesses in the long run — if they can keep eating until then.

“This whole thing has given me new hope,” Betz said. “We just don’t want people to forget about us little guys.”


Plans for East Kentucky future must include repairing coal’s damage

February 10, 2015

130214MountainRally0378 copyHundreds will march to the state Capitol  Thursday for the 10th annual I Love Mountains Day protest of destructive strip-mining, as they did in this 2013 photo. Below, Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers attend the first SOAR summit, Dec. 9, 2013. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Two large public gatherings are planned in the next week by groups trying to create a brighter future for Eastern Kentucky.

They come from different sides of the “war on coal” debate that has polarized discussion of these issues, but they have more in common than you might think.

The first event, Thursday in Frankfort, is the 10th annual I Love Mountains Day, organized by the citizens’ group Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. (Information and registration: Kftc.org.)

In what has become an annual rite, hundreds of people will march to the Capitol steps and urge the governor and General Assembly to stop the coal industry’s most destructive surface-mining practices. And they will be ignored.

Few legislators will come out to hear them. Neither will the governor, nor any candidate for governor who has any chance of being elected. Most politicians think they must be unequivocal “friends of coal” to get elected, regardless of the toll on Kentucky’s land, air, water and public health.

131209SOAR-TE0093 copyThe other event, Monday in Pikeville, is the second summit meeting of Shaping Our Appalachian Region. SOAR is a bipartisan effort to improve life in Eastern Kentucky that was launched in 2013 by Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers. (Information and registration: Soar-ky.org.)

Eastern Kentucky’s coal industry has been eliminating jobs for decades as mines were mechanized, coal reserves depleted and deep mining replaced by “mountaintop removal” and other forms of surface mining.

But the job losses have mounted in recent years because of cheap natural gas, cheaper coal from elsewhere and the Obama administration’s better-late-than-never actions to fight pollution and climate change.

Politicians and business leaders have had to admit that most of Eastern Kentucky’s coal jobs are never coming back, and that new strategies are needed to diversify the economy.

That led to the creation of SOAR, whose 12 working committees have spent the past year conducting more than 100 “listening sessions” throughout the region to hear public comments, gather ideas, assess needs and set priorities.

Strategy Summit attendees will review the committees’ findings and discuss next steps. How those discussions play out could determine whether SOAR can build enough public credibility to make change.

An early criticism of SOAR was that its leadership was drawn almost exclusively from Eastern Kentucky’s power elite. There was little or no representation from coal industry critics or grassroots groups such as KFTC.

The question hanging over SOAR is whether leaders who have done well in Eastern Kentucky’s status quo can be expected to change it. We should get some indication of that Monday, when there will be at least a couple of elephants in the room.

Eastern Kentucky is one of America’s least-healthy places, with high rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and drug abuse. Smoking, obesity, poverty, poor eating habits and lack of exercise are to blame for much of it. But not all of it.

One of the biggest concerns citizens expressed in the health committee’s listening sessions was the health effects of surface mining. Scientific studies have increasingly found high rates of cancer, birth defects and other problems in mining areas that can’t be dismissed by other factors. Will SOAR explore that issue, or ignore it?

Another elephant in the room will be President Barack Obama’s Feb. 1 proposal to release $1 billion in abandoned mine land funds to create jobs on environmental cleanup projects.

The long-overdue action could be a huge boost for Eastern Kentucky. But many politicians have reacted cautiously, since it comes from a president they love to hate. This proposal should be a big topic of discussion at the summit. But will it be?

Eastern Kentucky needs many things to have a brighter future: better schools, better infrastructure, less-corrupt politics, more inclusive leadership and a move diverse economy. And, as much as anything, it needs a healthier population and a cleaner environment.

Coal mining has done some good things for Eastern Kentucky over the past century. Although its role will continue to diminish, coal will be an important part of the economy for years to come. But the coal industry’s damage must be reckoned with. The best way to start cleaning up a mess is to stop making it bigger.