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.”
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.”