Shaping the new Appalachian economy

How can Eastern Kentucky recover from the economic devastation caused by the decline of the coal industry? The answer is complex, but tourism could be one part of the solution.

I’m author Gwen Alyce Clayton and I live in Ashland, Kentucky, a small town on the eastern border of the Bluegrass State. Last week, I attended the MiniSOAR Summit downtown where I learned that tourism brings in $60 billion a year annually to Appalachia. Leaders in our area are wondering how they can score a bigger piece of that pie.

Photo by Gwen Clayton

In addition to writing fiction books, I also have a freelance content-writing business where I help small local companies with their promotional needs. I attended the conference to gain insight into this new business environment that’s become my home. I met dozens of interesting people, attended informative discussions, and had a wonderful lunch at a local Italian restaurant, all with the purpose of sharing ideas, networking, sparking conversations, and driving action.  

Here are some of the highlights.

SOAR stands for Shaping Our Appalachian Region. It is a regional nonpartisan nonprofit that champions local projects and programs, and advocates for the part of Kentucky located within the Appalachian region.

There are lots of ideas for how to fill the gaps in the economy left by the decline of the coal industry, but the mini summit on March 7 and 8 focused specifically on tourism and downtown revitalization.

I missed the first day, which is a bummer because they talked about the creative economy and economic revitalization grants, and then they had this big ol’ reception and country music show at the Ashland Train Depot. But I did go the second day and that was totally worthwhile.

Prestonsburg Mayor Les Stapleton facilitated a discussion on downtown revitalization that included panelists Bailey Richards, City of Hazard Downtown Coordinator; Ameet Patel, president and CEO of Thoroughbred Hospitality Group; and Maggy Monhollen, executive director of the Corbin Tourism and Convention Commission. Photo by Gwen Clayton.

It started with a panel discussion about the importance a city’s downtown plays in attracting large employers. I’ve often heard mumblings by people who poo poo economic development and public investment in commercial projects, but if you want to bring jobs into an area, think about what that company looks for when decided where to set up shop.

They want to see walkable, vibrant communities where people gather at restaurants, do their shopping, and run errands. They don’t want to locate in a ghost town. Downtown is the heartbeat of a community and businesses want to see signs of life there. Once one business comes in, others will see it’s a success and follow suit.

There are several ways to pay for this. Bailey Richards, downtown director for the city of Hazard, said they offer businesses a $5,000 reimbursement for improvements as an incentive to locate downtown. They also pay for the use of a dumpster during construction.

Photo by Eddie Clayton.

Then there’s the question of what to do with vacant, rundown, old buildings. Kentucky has a Blighted and Abandoned Properties program where cities can send a building inspector to come in and inspect a derelict dwelling. If it doesn’t pass code, the property owner is taxed heavily, the city of Hazard has a five-fold increase, unless they bring the building into compliance. If they don’t pay their taxes after five years, the city pulls eminent domain and in some cases, demolishes the structure.

Maggy Monhollen, executive director of the Corbin Tourism and Convention Commission, said her city has a 95% occupancy rate downtown. She said one helpful thing was having her office located half a mile off the freeway exit. She also emphasized the importance of wayfinding signs.

Mike Mangeot, Kentucky Tourism Commissioner. Photo by Gwen Clayton.

Some fun facts about tourism that I learned throughout the day: 1) Les Stapleton, mayor of the city of Prestonsburg, said trails are inexpensive to do and they draw people to town. So, that’s an excellent return on investment. 2) Mike Mangeot Kentucky Department of Tourism Commissioner, said the motor coach market is really huge here because we are a drive market—people drive to get here, as opposed to flying in. With regards to the motor coaches, he said, “I always caution everybody if you get behind one of those in your town and you’re in a hurry and you want to honk at them and say, ‘get out of my way,’ please don’t do that. We call them rolling piggy banks. Because if they stop in your community, they’re going to spend on average about $5,000 in your restaurants, in your local businesses. And if they spend the night, you can more than double that. So wave. Be friendly. Welcome. Whatever you can do. The good thing in Kentucky, and this shows through in our research as well, is that our folks are so friendly and hospitable.”

Farrah Dobbs of The Kentucky Wildlands moderated the panel discussion on digital storytelling. Panelists include JC Phelps, business coach at the Kentucky Small Business Development Center; Samantha Johnson, executive director of Prestonsburg Tourism; and Natalie Detherage, business development manager at The Holler Creative and Explore Appalachia. Photo by Gwen Clayton.

My favorite part of the day, of course, was the digital storytelling breakout session. Being a writer, that’s the space in which I work.

The panel talked about things like how to maximize your social media content, review analytics, work with an advertising agency, and optimize your domain authority. That’s when you rank highest in the search results.

And if you need help with your digital storytelling, I’d be happy to craft something succinct, compelling, and engaging for you. Send me a message through LinkedIn and we can get a conversation started. I’ll leave a link to my page, as well as all the other places I’ve mentioned today, below.


Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR)

City of Hazard

Corbin Tourism and Convention Commission

City of Prestonsburg

Kentucky Department of Tourism

Blighted and Abandoned Properties Program

Gwen Clayton LinkedIn

Published by Gwen Clayton

Gwen Clayton is a freelance writer living in Ashland, Kentucky. She is the former editor of the Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly, and has written for numerous other publications since 1986. Her first book, the paranormal thriller "Fermata Cellars," was published in 2016, and her Bible-inspired short story, "Purr: A story of love, lions and a Hebrew named Daniel," was released in 2019. She recently finished writing, "Zinfandel’s Grimoire," which is the sequel to 'Fermata;' that book is in the editing and design phase of publication. Her current works in progress include the third book in the Rivervine Trilogy, tentatively titled, "Comatis Unveiled," and the nonfiction, "Dragon's Poker Table: A rocker chick's breast cancer journey." Her books are independently published under the imprint, Rivervine LLC. In addition to writing books, Clayton contracts as a copywriter for local, small businesses.

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