ABF 2.0 brings together diverse group to sample, dream for the region

“I love seeing people get excited about our future,” said Kenny Colinger to a group of folks gathered to inspire, learn, celebrate and connect at Appalachia’s Bright Future 2.0 in Harlan and Letcher counties.

The event September 12-14 was a continuation of the conversation in April 2013 at Appalachia’s Bright Future, a conference that brought 200 people to Harlan County to begin developing a shared vision for the next economy in Appalachia.

ABF 2.0 was less a conference and more a tour of good things happening to build a strong local economy in the mountains. In addition to a few structured conversations, participants were encouraged to choose their own adventure by taking a tour across Pine Mountain from Harlan County to Letcher County, stopping at local businesses, co-ops and attractions to chat with proprietors and see what’s happening.

Colinger’s comment came during a time of reflection on Saturday afternoon. But the weekend began with a celebration Friday evening as the Appalachian Community Fund honored KFTC members Bennie Massey and Stanley Sturgill as Eastern Kentucky Appalachian Heroes for their work to build a brighter future in their community. About 80 folks came together at the Eastern Kentucky Social Club in Lynch to celebrate Massey and Sturgill with words, music and a meal. See related post here.

On Saturday morning at the restored Betty Howard Coal Miners’ Memorial Theater in Benham, a panel of eastern Kentuckians talked about their hopes for the region and shared examples of good work already happening.

Moderator Carl Shoupe of Benham described the Benham Energy Project, an effort among several allies including KFTC, the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop a community-wide energy efficiency program that would save energy and money, create jobs and put more money back into the community.

KFTC member Chris Woolery, a MACED staff member who has helped develop the project, echoed Shoupe’s optimism. One home in Benham has already been retrofitted for efficiency, and owner Lacey Griffey enjoyed 56% savings on her energy bill last winter, even during the polar vortex.

“If you do energy efficiency well, it pays for itself,” Woolery said. “If we can invest in 100 homes here in Benham, that’s not just energy efficiency – that’s economic development.”

“I’m an eternal optimist,” Shoupe said. “We can do it.”

Letcher County artist Carrie Wells Carter said eastern Kentucky also offers opportunity for artists and musicians. “There are a ton of these old master musicians that people learn from,” she said. “We have all these creative people that live in the area.”

Carter said there’s potential to market the whole region as an arts and culture destination if the communities work together. “Creating a network of these small towns in the area is a very good idea.”

Andrea Massey of Benham, who helps college students get work experience with potential employers through the Ready to Work program at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, said community buy-in is essential for building a stronger economy. “We’ve got to look at the vision for our younger people to keep them here.”

Brandon Pennington, executive director of Harlan Tourism, shared his story of growing up in Harlan County, earning a business degree at Transylvania University and assuming he would go to a big city like New York or Chicago – only to be pulled back home by the “whisper” of the mountains. Pennington said he was fortunate to be hired by the city of Harlan and to live and work in his home county.

“I just really hope that one day we can have that opportunity for everyone,” Pennington said.

Panelist Tom Sexton of Whitesburg also thought he wanted to live outside the mountains. He spent time in Las Vegas and Arkansas before coming back home, where he serves on the Whitesburg City Council, manages Summit City Lounge, and is working with others to transform an old hotel in Whitesburg, among other projects.

The crowd for ABF was a colorful mix of people who had grown up in the region and others who had grown up in communities very different – in Michigan, New Jersey and even India. Over 100 people participated throughout the weekend, many from Harlan and Letcher Counties and across the Commonwealth, and others from neighboring Appalachian regions of Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. 

After the morning panel, they took off on their own to visit various stops in Harlan and Letcher counties. Then the group reconvened at Appalshop in Whitesburg on Saturday afternoon to reflect and share impressions, led by a panel of youth from the Higher Ground theater program in Harlan County and the Appalachian Media Institute in Letcher County. Colinger of Harlan County was among the panel.

Tayna Fogle, a KFTC member from Lexington, visited the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum and learned about the lives of miners. “I had no idea what coal miners did,” she said. “I put coal miners right up there with our military men.”

KFTC member Joy Arnold of Midway visited Creech Orchard and learned about the Creech family, who patented a strand of the Gala apple. She said she’d like to visit eastern Kentucky again. “I want to bring my state representative,” Arnold said. “I don’t think I want him to come with a group of legislators.”

Mary Love of La Grange visited fellow KFTC member Elmer Lloyd at his farm, where he has a fish pond, berry patch, greenhouse, outdoor canning kitchen and more. “It’s amazing to me what he has built there,” said Love. (See photo below.)

Member Eagle Brosi of Letcher County commented on the courage of eastern Kentucky youth in taking risks on small business ventures and pursuing their art. “They’re actually willing to put it on the line.”

Participants rounded out their Saturday with a meal at the historic home of Mike and Marcia Caudill in Carcassonne, followed by the Carcassonne Square Dance and a packed Open Mic performance at Summit City Lounge, where local members registered voters. Folks headed home after hikes and more visiting on Sunday.

See media coverage of the weekend here:

"Appalachia's Bright Future 2.0": A call for change

Appalachia's Bright Future 2.0 kicks off

Showing Off Appalachia's Bright Future

'Appalachia's Bright Future' event planned