Irvine festival celebrates wild and tasty morel mushrooms

April 19, 2014

140417MushroomFest0211Jen Collins scans the forest floor for tiny, tasty morel mushrooms in Estill County. The 24th annual Mountain Mushroom Festival in Irvine is April 26-27. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

IRVINE — “I found one!” Jen Collins called out from the top of the ridge. Her fellow mushroom hunters groaned and giggled.

By family tradition, Collins’ older sister, Joan Murphy, is supposed to find the first tasty morel mushroom each spring when they hike into the woods to search for them. But within a few minutes, Murphy had found one, too.

Collins and Murphy are fifth-generation ‘shroom hunters. They have walked these hills each spring since their father, Dennis Stacy, brought them and their five siblings here as teenagers more than 40 years ago. Now, they hunt mushrooms with their children and grandchildren, and many other Estill County families do the same.

“We know when it’s spring we go mushroom hunting,” Collins said. “It’s just a way of life.”

140417MushroomFest0054This local tradition prompted Irvine to start the Mountain Mushroom Festival in 1991. About 20,000 people are expected April 26-27 for the 24th annual festival, which will include a mushroom market and cooking demonstrations.

The festival also incorporates another local specialty: Kentucky agates. The gemstones are found only in Estill and parts of five surrounding counties. There will be public agate hunts along creek beds April 22-24 and an agate, gem and mineral show in town April 22-27.

Festival activities include a pancake breakfast, tractor and car shows, a parade and the annual Fungus 5k race. Festival admission is free. (More information: mountainmushroomfestival.org.)

“We’re trying to educate, and promote our cultural heritage,” said Francine Bonny, the festival’s chairman. “We want to highlight what is unique about our home and share it with visitors.”

Morel, or Morchella, mushrooms are difficult to cultivate, but grow wild in deciduous forests around the world. They can be found across Kentucky and surrounding states. The mushrooms start popping up in late March or early April, when overnight temperatures have warmed and there has been enough rain to dampen the soil.

140417MushroomFest0050A morel looks like a sponge or honeycomb and is hollow. Old-timers called them “dry-land fish” because they taste a little fishy. Hunters must take care not to confuse them with “false morels” — mushrooms that look more like brains than sponges and are poisonous.

Estill County hunters rarely find more than one or two morels growing together. The mushrooms range in color from black to golden and are often only one-to-three inches long. It takes skill and experience to see them poking up among the dead leaves and wildflowers on the forest floor.

The sisters took me mushroom hunting last Thursday, along with Collins’ son, Michael Collins Jr., president of the Estill County Chamber of Commerce, and Bonny, the festival chairman.

We drove up into the hills outside Irvine to their favorite spot, then hiked down one ridge and up another. Every few minutes, each hunter would stop to carefully scan the forest, poking a walking stick at fallen leaves when they thought they saw something — a mushroom or a snake.

When a morel was found, it was picked with a pinch of the stem. Hunters take care to protect the roots so they will produce more mushrooms. They carry picked mushrooms in a net shoulder bag on the theory that loose spores will fall off as they walk, increasing the chances of more mushrooms in the forest in the future.

When the hunters found leaves that looked disturbed, it often meant wild turkey had been there. “Deer and turkey both like mushrooms,” Collins said. “So you have to beat them to ‘em.”

After a couple of hours, the hunters had found 28 small morels. That explains why they sell for about $40 a pound at the festival’s mushroom market. I hadn’t found a single one. I’m sure it was because I was too busy taking pictures. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

The sisters were kind enough to give me a handful of their morels, plus cooking instructions. When I got home, I cleaned and sliced them in half, soaked them in saltwater, rolled them in cornmeal and a little flour and fried them in butter. Delicious!

The next time I go mushroom hunting, I will leave my cameras at home. I want to focus on dinner.

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If SOAR wants to get off the ground, it needs diverse leadership

March 25, 2014

When Gov. Steve Beshear and Rep. Hal Rogers launched their Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) project last year, they promised it would be different.

They said SOAR would succeed in bringing economic vitality and diversity to long-troubled Eastern Kentucky, where so many past efforts have failed, because it would seek new ideas and leadership from a broader representation of the region’s people.

So far, it isn’t looking much different. Beshear and Rogers announced a leadership team Monday to guide the SOAR process. The list raised eyebrows not so much because of who was included as who was excluded, which was pretty much everybody outside Eastern Kentucky’s establishment power structure.

“It was a missed opportunity, for sure,” said Justin Maxson, president of the Berea-based Mountain Association for Community Development, which has been working on innovative economic development strategies in Central Appalachia since 1976.

SOAR_logoMaxson would seem a logical choice for SOAR’s 15-member executive committee or to chair one of its 10 working groups. But the only person with ties to MACED on the SOAR leadership team is Haley McCoy of Jackson Energy, an electric cooperative in Jackson County, who also happens to serve on MACED’s board.

Maxson praised McCoy’s selection, and that of SOAR’s interim executive director, Chuck Fluharty, president of the Rural Policy Research Institute. “He understands that a region needs a diverse set of economic development strategies,” Maxson said of Fluharty. “But it’s unclear what his role will be.”

If Beshear and Rogers really want new ideas, MACED would be a good place to look. “We’re not afraid to say hard things,” Maxson said. “Most of the solutions the region needs are not going to be easy.”

Excluded from SOAR’s leadership is anyone from Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a citizens group with more than 8,000 members statewide. KFTC has been working effectively in coal-dominated Eastern Kentucky since 1981.

“I’m trying to be nice about this, but everything they do, it seems like it’s the same old, same old bunch,” said Carl Shoupe of Harlan, a KFTC executive committee member. “We’re a little bit too progressive for them, maybe.”

In addition to McCoy, SOAR’s executive committee, co-chaired by Beshear and Rogers, includes coal executive Jim Booth of Inez; Pikeville banker Jean Hale; Rodney Hitch of Winchester, economic development manager for East Kentucky Power; entrepreneur Jim Host of Lexington; Tom Hunter of Washington, D.C., retired executive director of the federal Appalachian Regional Commission; Ashland lawyer Kim McCann; and Bob Mitchell of Corbin, Rogers’ former chief of staff and a board member of the Center for Rural Development that Rogers created in Somerset.

Four elected officials are ex-officio members: House Speaker Greg Stumbo of Floyd County; Senate President Robert Stivers of Clay County; and county judge-executives Albey Brock of Bell County and Doc Hardin of Magoffin County.

Former Gov. Paul Patton, 76, of Pikeville, leads the Futures Forum committee “responsible for framing and advancing the long-term vision of the region.”

Among the 10 people appointed to chair working groups is Phil Osborne, a Lexington public relations executive. He chairs the Tourism, Including Natural Resources, Arts & Heritage group. Osborne is a talented marketing executive, but his appointment to head that group sends a strong message of its own.

Osborne was a key leader in Faces of Coal, the coal industry’s multimillion-dollar propaganda campaign to block federal enforcement of environmental laws related to mining. The “war on coal” divisiveness that campaign fueled in the region is one of many obstacles SOAR must overcome.

In an interview, Shoupe of KFTC read key passages from the report by SOAR’s consultant on takeaways from a public forum Dec. 9 in Pikeville, where more than 1,500 people gathered to launch the initiative:

“People appreciate the governor and congressman, but fear entrenched interests will wait them out. … Folks want the dialogue deepened and broadened. … Next generation leadership is essential. The young men and women of this region must feel a stronger sense of SOAR engagement than is currently evident, moving forward. Specific leadership attention to this dimension of governance and program design and delivery is so critical to SOAR’s mission achievement.”

“And what did they do?” Shoupe said of the leadership appointments. “They did everything backwards.”

Maxson and Shoupe said they have been assured that SOAR working groups will listen to everyone’s ideas and perspectives. That’s not good enough, and Beshear and Rogers should know it.

If they want new ideas and the broad public support and credibility SOAR needs to succeed, they must be willing to give some seats at the decision-making table to people besides Eastern Kentucky’s Old Guard. Otherwise, SOAR won’t be any different than the failed efforts of the past.

 


Will SOAR be a new beginning, or just more talk about Appalachia?

December 8, 2013

You have to wonder: Will the Shaping Our Appalachian Region summit Monday in Pikeville be the start of something big, or just another feel-good effort that doesn’t amount to much?

More than 1,500 people have registered to attend the conference called by Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, who said they wanted ideas from throughout Eastern Kentucky for strategies to diversify the region’s economy.

There have been dozens of conferences on this topic over the years, but this one offers some hopeful signs. For one thing, it is the first high-level, bipartisan effort. Politicians who usually dance to the tune of the all-powerful coal industry are actually asking other people what they think.

But once the talking is over and the reports are written, will leadership, public investment and private capital get behind the good ideas? Will anything really change?

soarlogoCreating a sustainable, broadly prosperous economy in a region that has never really had one will be a monumental challenge.

Eastern Kentucky has never lacked for intelligent, hard-working people. But it has been handicapped by isolation, lack of education and opportunity, corrupt politics and powerful economic forces beyond its borders and control.

Since the late 1800s, the region has gone from subsistence farming to large-scale timber extraction to increasingly destructive methods of coal mining. The result has been a classic colonial economy, where most of the wealth flowed out of the region, or to a small local elite, while a large underclass survived on welfare and charity.

This cycle of poverty and dependence has led to hopelessness, drug abuse and other social problems, as was outlined in the most recent chapters of the excellent series Fifty Years of Night, by Herald-Leader reporters John Cheves and Bill Estep.

Can a new and different chapter be written for Eastern Kentucky?

In calling this summit, Beshear and Rogers cited the loss of more than 6,000 coal jobs over the past two years. But they wisely avoided their usual “war on coal” rhetoric, which blames the industry’s problems on long-overdue environmental regulation and enforcement.

The main reasons for declining coal production are cheaper Western coal and even cheaper natural gas. Besides, coal employment in Eastern Kentucky has been falling for three decades, from a high of 37,505 in 1981, primarily because of industry mechanization and a shift from deep to surface mining.

Eastern Kentucky’s current coal employment is 7,951, the lowest in generations, and that is unlikely to improve much. Coal will continue to be a presence. But because the large, easy-to-mine reserves are gone, most of the coal jobs will never return.

There are no “magic bullet” solutions to replacing Eastern Kentucky’s coal-based economy. (Not that coal itself was ever a magic bullet. Even when coal employment and production were at their peaks, the coal counties were still among the nation’s poorest.)

The citizens group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth has some good ideas about what a new Eastern Kentucky economy should aspire to. Those principles would be a good starting point for Monday’s conversations.

KFTC’s vision calls for a “just” transition that promotes “innovation, self-reliance and broadly held local wealth.” It urges more citizen participation in decision-making, and calls for restoration and protection of the environment and public health. It also urges leaders to “consider the effects of decisions on future generations.”

Tourism and outdoor recreation are often mentioned as potential economic opportunities, but that will require cleaning up some of strip mining’s environmental damage. Kentucky should lobby for money to do that work from the federal Abandoned Mine Lands fund, which could keep thousands of former coal miners employed for years.

Home-grown entrepreneurship and technology jobs are other often-mentioned possibilities to building Eastern Kentucky’s middle class, but they will require serious state investments in education and infrastructure to attract private capital. Kentucky’s tax-phobic politicians and the citizens who elect them have never been willing to make such serious investment, and that must change if anything else is to.

Shaping a new Eastern Kentucky economy will require a lot of creativity, commitment and hard work, not to mention leadership, inclusion and accountability.

There will be many obstacles to overcome, not the least of which is cynicism. It will be a long process. But Monday in Pikeville is as good a time and place to start as any.


Thirty years after closing, Hazel Green Academy lives on in memory

August 13, 2013

130810HazelGreen-TE0070

More than 100 people attended Hazel Green Academy’s annual reunion in the Wolfe County town of Hazel Green. They signed in by decade on an old classroom chalkboard. The boarding school for Eastern Kentucky children closed 30 years ago. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

HAZEL GREEN — As we drove into this Wolfe County town of 228 people, Bob Tutt asked me to pull the car into a hillside cemetery so he could find Henry Stovall’s grave.

Beside the headstone stood a granite monument that former students had erected to the memory of the longtime director of Hazel Green Academy.

“He had a big influence on my life,” Tutt said of the tall, tough Mississippian who instilled character and discipline in students without ever raising his voice.

“The first time you got in trouble, you had to talk to Mr. Stovall.” said Tutt, a student in the early 1940s. “I had to talk to him one time, and if there had been a crawdad hole I would have gone in it. I’ve never forgotten it, and I’m almost 85.”

At the boarding school’s old campus Saturday, we found more than 100 other former students. Many had their own stories of long-ago teachers, mentors, life lessons and life-changing experiences.

Founded in 1880 by local residents, Hazel Green Academy was one of the few comprehensive schools available to young men and women in this part of Eastern Kentucky’s mountains.

The Disciples of Christ adopted the school in 1886 and operated it as a mission, with tuition and boarding costs offset by outside donations and work scholarships for students. The academy’s motto was, “Where we find a path or make one.”

When they weren’t in the classroom building or dormitories, or studying industrial arts or home economics, Hazel Green’s boys and girls worked on the school farm, in the dairy and around campus. There were basketball and baseball teams, and folk dancing was a popular pastime.

As public schools were established in the area, the academy stopped teaching the first six grades in 1929. But under Stovall’s leadership in the 1930s and 1940s, course offerings and community services grew.

The school had its own water and power plants, which supplied electricity to the town into the 1930s. At various times, Hazel Green Academy also provided the community with a library and a small hospital. When World War II ended, the school’s farm donated more than six tons of food for European relief.

“It was the lifeblood of Hazel Green,” said Ralph Locker, 93, who moved to the town and opened a store after serving in the war under Gen. George S. Patton.

But the academy’s role declined as roads and public schools improved. In 1965, grades 7 and 8 were discontinued. The high school closed after the class of 1983 graduated.

Over the years, many students went on to college, especially Berea College, which was similarly designed to educate the children of mountain families of modest means. Hazel Green produced many teachers, doctors and community leaders.

The Bickers brothers — Don in South Carolina, Bob in Idaho and Jerry in Winchester — came back to the reunion because Hazel Green Academy was much more than a school to them.

“We came from a broken home in Owenton, and this became our home,” said Bob Bickers, a retired AT&T technician. “Three meals a day, a bed and friends. It turned our lives around. We all went on to make something of ourselves.”

Since the academy closed, the denomination and Hazel Green Christian Church have managed the campus, which is now used for conferences and events. The buildings had fallen into disrepair over the years, and that bothered Rita Rogers, whose husband, Roy, attended the academy.

“Even though I went to the rival high school,” she said, “I recognized what a special place this is.”

Rogers helped organize an alumni effort to restore the main classroom building. Now, each room has been “adopted” by groups of alumni, cleaned and decorated with old school memorabilia. She and others eventually hope to restore other campus buildings.

“Hazel Green Academy was just a special thing to be a part of,” said Scott Lockard, who graduated in the last class in 1983 and is now Clark County’s public health director. “It was so much more than a place to fill your mind. My spirit was filled here, too.”

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How to improve Appalachia? Create more local entrepreneurs

July 21, 2013

Thomas F. Miller thinks he knows how to make Eastern Kentucky’s economy more vibrant, diverse and sustainable: create more entrepreneurs. How could that be done? Well, he has some ideas about that, too.

Miller, 67, has been thinking about these issues since 1971, when he left a Big Eight accounting firm to move to Eastern Kentucky and work for what is now Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp.

From 1973 to 1981, Miller was president of Kentucky Highlands, one of the most successful initiatives to come out of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “war on poverty.” Miller later worked in economic and community development in San Francisco, his native Tennessee and for the Ford Foundation in New York and Africa.

130717TomMiller0010Miller recently sent me a report that summarizes his four decades of thinking about Eastern Kentucky’s economic challenges. We met last week in Berea, where he has lived since retirement, to talk more about it.

“I can’t let go of the big conclusions I’ve come to about the development challenges around here,” Miller said.

Eastern Kentucky’s economy has been dominated for more than a century by extractive industries — coal, timber, oil and gas. Production costs were kept low and most profits went elsewhere.

Those dominant industries and geographic isolation limited diversification and civic engagement. Eastern Kentucky’s economy became almost solely dependent on the boom-and-bust coal industry — and government transfer payments.

Efforts to bring industry from elsewhere into Appalachia has had limited success for a variety of reasons, and most of those jobs have paid low wages. Many of Appalachia’s talented and ambitious entrepreneurs have left for better opportunities elsewhere.

You can’t just throw money at the problems, Miller said. That’s why the billions of public and private dollars that have gone to Appalachia in the past half-century haven’t solved the problems. More important than having capital, he said, is having people who know how to successfully put capital to work.

Kentucky Highlands and other similar organizations in Central Appalachia have done some good work in this area. But they simply haven’t been big enough to make the impact that is needed, he said.

Miller proposes creating an Eastern Kentucky Venture Fund, led by a half dozen or so senior Kentucky business people with exceptional talents. They would need to raise at least $250 million in public and private equity and debt to create and nurture entrepreneurs and to invest in new businesses, often through existing organizations such as Kentucky Highlands.

And an important focus would need to be creating businesses that bring new money into the region by producing products sold elsewhere.

“While government has a role to play, this kind of development strategy can’t be led by government,” Miller said. “Government is about trying to please a lot of constituencies. Private investment is about saying ‘no’ 99 percent of the time.”

Because this kind of fund would be more about regional development than quick profits, it would be hard to attract most private equity. But, with the right kind of leadership and vision, Miller thinks, a number of big foundations would be willing to invest. So would regional corporations and utilities that stand to benefit from an improving Eastern Kentucky economy.

“We must make the most of the entrepreneurs we have, bring more of them into the region and grow them at home,” Miller said in his report.

The best Eastern Kentucky entrepreneurs are likely to be homegrown ones — people who have a passion for the region and don’t want to live anywhere else, he said.

This effort would require culture change in a region where work has often meant working for someone else. And it would require extensive training in economics, entrepreneurship and business skills, from elementary school through college, both in the classroom and through extracurricular activities such as Junior Achievement.

“You would try to do everything you can do to increase people’s ability to think like entrepreneurs and, more importantly, give them opportunities to practice,” Miller said.

“There are no silver bullets,” he said. “It’s probably a 50-year strategy, at best, and the first 10 years aren’t going to be pretty. But we know that this investment strategy works in Eastern Kentucky, that betting on the people here is the thing to do.”


Becoming a Kentucky writer, by way of New Jersey and New York

January 23, 2013

Writer Joseph Anthony. Photo by Tom Eblen 

 

What, exactly, is a Kentucky writer? Is it a writer from Kentucky? One who lives or has lived in Kentucky? Writes about Kentucky?

That idea has been discussed a lot since the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning began a project last year to celebrate Kentucky writers of the past and present, and to promote Lexington as the “literary capital of mid-America.” On Thursday, the center will name the first six inductees into its Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.

With all of this in mind, I went to talk with a talented Kentucky writer who took a roundabout journey to get here.

Joseph G. Anthony was born in New Jersey and raised “on the wrong side of the tracks” in Camden, which seemed to him like a no-man’s land between New York and Philadelphia.

Anthony said he lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for a dozen years, managing an off-track betting parlor and teaching English part-time at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University.

Then, at age 33, he was offered a teaching job at Hazard Community College in 1980.

“I knew nothing about Kentucky, except the Derby happened here,” he said with a laugh. “I found it to be a great adventure.”

After five years in Hazard, Anthony moved to the humanities faculty of Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington.

As he nears retirement, Anthony, 66, has had a burst of literary output in the past year: a novel,Pickering’s Mountain, set in Eastern Kentucky, and a short-story collection, Bluegrass Funeral, set in Central Kentucky.

With those two books and his first novel, Peril, Kentucky, published in 2005, Anthony considers himself a Kentucky writer. (He also published a short-story collection in 2009,Camden Blues, set in New Jersey and New York.)

“I’ve really bonded with Kentucky,” he said. “I get angry at it, like you only can at a relative. I really love so many things about it. We’re so lucky here in so many ways. Kentuckians understand their identity. I come from Jersey, where we didn’t.”

Anthony enjoys seeing Kentuckians meet for the first time and do what he calls “the county dance:” figuring out where each is from and what connections they might have. “We never did the county dance in New Jersey,” he said.

The states do have similarities, he said. People in both states tend to feel outside the American mainstream. And both are often stereotyped by outsiders.

Insiders and outsiders are a recurrent theme in Anthony’s fiction. He doesn’t avoid stereotypes, but he tries to play off them to show readers that things are always more complicated than they seem.

This is particularly true in Pickering’s Mountain, in which a young New Yorker comes to a small Eastern Kentucky town to take a job as a newspaper reporter.

Sam Weatherby and his family are thrown into complicated situations involving families, religion and coal mining. The outcomes are anything but predictable.

“Things get complicated, because there’s real people involved, real dilemmas,” he said. “Eastern Kentucky is a very complicated place. I wanted to write about the complexity of it.”

Anthony faced the same challenge for Bluegrass Funeral, whose stories are set in Lexington and a fictional Godard County. The stories include explorations of the region’s complicated history with race and class.

Anthony will be reading from and signing Bluegrass Funeral at 6 p.m. Friday at Wild Fig Bookstore, 1439 Leestown Road, and at noon Jan. 30 in the lobby of Bluegrass Community and Technical College, 470 Cooper Drive.

The Bluegrass Funeral stories led Anthony to his next project, which he says will be either a collection of short stories or a novel set in Lexington during the civil rights era, between the 1940s and the 1960s. He has been preparing to write by researching that era and listening to oral history interviews.

“I want it to be fiction,” he said. “I really feel fiction can tell a story in a way journalism can’t or essays can’t.”

After three Kentucky books, Anthony said, he sometimes feels as if he’s just getting started as a Kentucky writer. There is so much interesting material to explore.

“We’re called a border state,” he said. “I don’t think anybody else is like us. We’re not the border. We’re it.”


Alltech announced job-creation competition

May 22, 2012

Alltech announced a job-creation competition Tuesday for business students at the University of Kentucky, University of Louisville and University of Pikeville, with a $20,000 prize for the winning school.

Pearse Lyons, president and founder of the Nicholasville-based animal nutrition company, said the business plan competition is focused on fostering innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development in nine Eastern Kentucky counties: Bell, Floyd, Harlan, Johnson, Knott, Letcher, Magoffin, Martin and Pike.

“It’s time to balance the scales and cultivate a Kentucky that leads the nation not just in college sports but in employment as well,” Lyons said, noting that many of the targeted counties have unemployment rates twice the national average.

“With its hardworking people, vibrant culture, picturesque landscape and abundance of natural resources, Kentucky is ripe for the right idea,” Lyons said. “What we need is innovation and inspiration — sparks that will kindle the economic flame.”

Lyons announced the competition during a free seminar on entrepreneurship in the state that he and veteran Kentucky entrepreneur Jim Host put on at Lexington Center. It attracted a capacity crowd of more than 400 people, including many Central Kentucky business leaders.

The seminar was held in conjunction with Alltech’s 28th annual International Symposium, which each spring brings a couple thousand of the company’s customers here from all over the world.

Officials at each university will choose a competition team from among master’s in business administration students and some undergraduates. The competition will run from November through January 2013, when students will present their final plans to a panel of business leaders, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs.

The winning plan will be the one that best fosters economic development in the nine-county region and appeals to investors interested in funding it. The winning team will receive $20,000 from Alltech for their university’s business school.


Finding human, financial capital for Kentucky

January 31, 2010

Improving Kentucky’s economy will require more capital. Finding that capital, both human and financial, is likely to involve more small steps than big leaps.

Two groups are taking steps worth noting. They are the Young Professionals of Eastern Kentucky and the Lexington Venture Club.

The Young Professionals of Eastern Kentucky is a new organization that hopes to help talented young people stay in — or return to — Eastern Kentucky’s mountains. It is having its kickoff event Monday night in Hazard.

“We really want to combat the brain drain,” said Bradley Parke, 24, of Knott County, the group’s vice president. “There are a lot of people who leave and want to come back, but there’s just not the opportunities for them.”

The free event, which begins with a 6:30 p.m. reception at First Federal Center on the campus of Hazard Community and Technical College, will include speeches by U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers and former Gov. Paul Patton.

Kevin Smith, 26, a Laurel County native who lives in Inez, was inspired to start Young Professionals of Kentucky after reading Visioning Kentucky’s Future, a 2008 report by the Kentucky Long-Term Policy Research Center.

“There was a need for young professionals to come together,” he said, not only to create new economic opportunities for themselves and their communities, but to be more aware of opportunities already in the region.

“Many of us have a passion for this region,” he said. “We want to live and work here.”

Smith, Parke and others formed a steering committee and then a board of young professionals from across Kentucky’s 32 Appalachian counties. They applied for non-profit status and organized small get-togethers in London, Hazard, Prestonsburg, Somerset, Whitesburg and Pikeville.

“We’re pretty spread out, so we’re trying to reach every part of the region so everyone feels like they’re included,” said Parke, adding that online networking tools will be key. The organization has created a Web site (www.ypek.org) and a Facebook group with nearly 1,200 members.

In addition to networking, Smith and Parke said the group plans to form working groups to study and undertake projects around six themes: economic development; energy and environment; education; health care; technology; and civic engagement. That work will get started at the group’s next regional meeting, tentatively scheduled for early April.

They said the organization’s board includes Republicans and Democrats, and they’re being careful to avoid political associations that could limit their effectiveness in the region.

“We’re trying to say, no matter what your background or ideology is, we’re here to make a difference,” Smith said.

Meanwhile, the Lexington Venture Club gathered last week to discuss the state of venture capital funding in Kentucky.

The club reported that entrepreneurial companies in Central Kentucky attracted $47.5 million in venture funding last year for a two-year total of $116 million — not a bad showing considering the overall economic climate.

The 88 companies surveyed by the club said they hired 386 people last year, up from 230 in 2008 and 162 in 2007. The average salary for full-time jobs at those companies was $69,800, up from $61,000 two years ago.

Venture funding comes from a variety of non-traditional sources outside bank lending, such as venture capital funds, private investors and entrepreneurs and their friends and families.

It is a vital source of capital for young companies in fields such as technology and bio-sciences. Innovation is often a risky investment, but it can pay off big, both for investors in those companies and for their communities.

The gathering at Lansdowne’s Signature Club attracted nearly 200 people, prompting UK President Lee Todd to remark that Lexington’s venture capital and entrepreneur community “could not have filled a closet 10 or 15 years ago.”

The keynote speaker was David Jones Jr., chairman and managing director of Chrysalis Ventures in Louisville, the region’s oldest and largest venture capital firm with about $400 million under management. He also is non-executive chairman of Humana Inc., which his father helped found.

Jones said Kentucky is behind many neighboring states in creating the kind of innovative companies that can attract venture funding. A key to improvement, he said, will be for Kentucky to emphasize and invest more in education at all levels.


Can East Kentucky change relationship with coal?

April 24, 2009

HAZARD — The keynote speaker at the 22nd annual East Kentucky Leadership Conference was Ron Eller, a leading authority on the history of modern Appalachia.

The University of Kentucky history professor also was given the East Kentucky Leadership Foundation’s annual “private individual” award, which comes with a beautiful, handmade wooden chair.

By the time Eller finished speaking Thursday evening, I suspect many in the audience of 250 were ready to break the chair over his head.

Eller, an eighth-generation Appalachian who was the first member of his family to go to college, said the region will never catch up with the rest of the nation economically as long as it is defined by industries that abusively extract natural resources, especially the dwindling supply of coal.

“We must begin, I think, by abolishing surface mining, including the radically destructive practice of mountaintop removal,” Eller said. “Mountaintop removal isn’t necessary to the region or to the national economy. It’s just cheaper.

“We can continue to mine coal, gas and other mineral resources. But the impact of extraction on the land, on our water resources, on our forest resources and other sensitive ecosystems must be strictly regulated and enforced. In the long run, we will have to move away from an extractive economy, especially one based upon coal.”

The final speaker of the two-day conference at Hazard Community and Technical College was House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Prestonsburg Democrat who serves on the board of a coal company. He revised his planned remarks to respond to Eller.

Some of what Stumbo said was defensive: Why do people who no longer live in the mountains think they know what’s best for them? Subdivisions built on Lexington farmland are just as bad for the environment as surface mining in the mountains.

Some of it was matter of fact: We must move beyond coal, which will eventually be gone. We also must understand that coal produces half the nation’s electricity — and more than 90 percent of Kentucky’s electricity — and nothing can change that anytime soon.

And some of what Stumbo said was new and interesting: Rather than abolish surface mining, which he said isn’t economically practical, leaders in Eastern Kentucky must become more creative and demanding about how mined land is reclaimed and reused.

Stumbo cited several examples where mined land has been turned into airports, subdivisions, parks, golf courses and commercial development. But he also acknowledge that much other mined land has been poorly reclaimed as useless “pasture.”

Stumbo said he has begun talking with Gov. Steve Beshear about creating a state master plan for engaging landowners, regulators and community leaders to require better plans for post-mining use before land can be mined. If done properly, he said, more mined land could become an asset for the region instead of a liability.

I’ve been attending the East Kentucky Leadership Conference off and on since 1998, and it gets more interesting every year. That’s because the people who come seem more willing to discuss controversial subjects, question the way things have always been done and embrace new ideas.

A growing theme of the conference has been entrepreneurship and how digital technology could be harnessed to reduce the region’s economic isolation. More leaders in Eastern Kentucky now understand that their economy won’t be fixed by attracting big, outside employers so much as by educating and enabling creative, hard-working locals.

Jerry Rickett of the Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp., one of the oldest and most successful organizations working to develop home-grown businesses, noted that there are more than 82,000 “micro enterprises” in Kentucky’s Appalachian counties. Imagine, he said, how many jobs could be created if some of those businesses could grow enough to hire just one more person?

Entrepreneurship and a more diverse economy are vital to Eastern Kentucky’s future. But another key will be the willingness of the region’s people to better manage their bittersweet, century-old relationship with the coal industry.

Kentuckians must find ways to make the coal industry a better environmental steward, community partner and contributor to the quality of life in the mountains — either by Eller’s way, Stumbo’s way or intelligent combinations of both.