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MN&WR: Hazard, Kentucky – Boom or Bust?

MN&WR: Hazard, Kentucky – Boom or Bust?

  • Hazard, Kentucky: Boom or Bust? Take an in depth look at community efforts to revitalize downtown Hazard with WMMT’s Kelli Haywood. An entire half hour devoted to the voices of Hazard sharing their dreams, disappointments, bumps in the road, and successes as they try to rebuild a livable community through food, arts, culture, and more.
Photos by Kelli Hansel Haywood ~top l to r and bottom l to r ~ 1. The Grand Hotel  2. Main Street  3. Samantha Haynes and 3 month old Aurora  4. InVision Hazard Mural
Photos by Kelli Hansel Haywood ~top l to r and bottom l to r ~ 1. The Grand Hotel 2. Main Street 3. Samantha Haynes and 3 month old Aurora 4. InVision Hazard Mural
Photo by Issac Boone Davis
Photo by Issac Boone Davis

Reporter’s Notebook: Kelli Hansel Haywood for WMMT

In its heyday, Hazard, the county seat of Perry County, was one of the larger eastern Kentucky boom towns.  First lumber then coal drove the economy of Perry County, turning Hazard into a major center for commerce in the mountains. In the 1940s the city’s population topped out at over 7,000 people and nearly 48,000 in all of Perry County, but from then both have seen a steady decline with changes in the coal industry.  As seen in towns throughout eastern Kentucky, the latest hit taken by the coal industry has all but devastated downtown Hazard.

For the last decade, as eastern Kentucky has experienced all of this major change, towns have either been adapting or disappearing.  Hazard remains a center of commerce for Perry and surrounding counties.  The big difference is that the business being done in Hazard has been diverted from downtown and to the big chain box stores like Wal-Mart, Food City, Lowe’s, and Big Lots.  As in many towns across America, the days of mom’s and pop’s is all but gone.  Couple that with a loss of coal jobs and you have people living on a tight budget, who have to shop at box stores because of lower prices and not enough good waged jobs to go around.  Unless you have a distinct niche business that will entice people to travel to your location for what you offer, or you are able to compete with the prices of the chain stores, entrepreneurship is more risk than most want to take on.

The people of Perry County have also received negative attention from national media for being one of the worst places to live in the country in no small part due to dismal health outcomes.  Culprits like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, hunger, and cancer are all to blame.  However, Kentucky also leads the nation in acute cases of Hepatitis C with 4.1 cases per every 100,000 residents.  Perry County is one of the top 200 counties nationwide in risk of HepC and HIV outbreak due to the opioid epidemic and needle injected drug use.   The county also has a significant population experiencing homelessness in comparison to population who find their way to Hazard to try to obtain help.

Coalfield communities in Appalachia are often stereotyped as reliant on welfare and unwilling to work or become educated by national media and those from outside of the region.  While there is some truth to all stereotypes, the explanation of them are very complicated.  A lack of access to government assistance would devastate many residents in coalfields Appalachia, and the same is true for Hazard.  This does not mean, however, that they are unwilling to do the work it takes to create a livable community for themselves and their children.  This is directly reflected in the work ethic presented by those working to revitalize downtown Hazard.

It is not simple to live in a struggling community, and sometimes hope is hard to find.  Hazard residents are diligently working to change their downtown into something never seen before in Perry County – a downtown that reflects local arts, culture, and food.  As many Hazard residents will tell you, there isn’t one thing that is going to fix their economy.  They equate the effort as needing to be like a silver buckshot as opposed to a silver bullet.  It seems that the starting point for many in Hazard and Perry County has been going back to what many in Appalachia know how to do – small scale farming.  Through efforts of Community Farm Alliance, which serves the area, North Fork Local Foods was created to operate in Hazard to run Perry County Regional Farmer’s Market and the Perry County Farm to Table Program.

As these efforts start to build, other regional and community organizations are playing a role in addressing Hazard’s crumbling infrastructure.  Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, the Philanthropic Capital Fund for Southeast Kentucky (FILCAP), Mountain Association for Community and Economic Development (MACED), and InVision Hazard are all busy plugging away to create opportunities for more entrepreneurship in Hazard’s downtown.  Residents are not idealistic when considering what types of businesses might work in a downtown like Hazard’s.  As independent contractor, landscaper, and seamstress Pamela Farrell share in her interview for this story, “It would be great to have a couple of businesses in town, but it would have to be ones that cater to the whole lot of people, not just people with full time jobs that make good.”

Jenny Williams, a professor of English at the Hazard Community and Technical College and a very active volunteer for the revitalization effort, told Willie Davis in 2015 when the interviews that would become this story began, “Everybody should be able to live an artful life and appreciate something beautiful.  Everybody should be able to have a river that is clean, that you can wade in and fish in without worrying about the fish that you pull out of it being inedible.  And, being able to eat someplace that has fresh local, healthy food that’s affordable.  That’s art to us… Another thing I would say is I get that what we need is jobs.  I get that.   I’m not saying that we can live on love and poetry alone.”  In that reality lies Hazard.  The efforts that can amount to so much over time feel very slow in the scheme of things even if they are “baby steps in the right direction.”

The question then becomes – will we have the momentum to sustain the work that will attract people who can bring jobs to towns like Hazard while at the same time not overlooking the direct and immediate needs of the regions poor, hungry, and addicted?  Samantha Haynes, a 23 year old mother of three who currently volunteers at Second Chance Mission who serves those in need in Hazard summed up the plight of the area’s young people well when she told me, “This lady told me that it was beautiful downtown.  You know, that’s a beautiful view.  But, do you see what’s underneath that?  I’m not comfortable in that.  I’m not comfortable raising my kids around here knowing that the majority of people want to leave Hazard now, and yet, everybody wants to come home.  There’s nothing here for us, but there’s so much we have.  We’ve got all kinds of creativity from just making stuff to painting, to singing… and just talking.  It’s beautiful… but I want people to know that people like me want that for Hazard.  It just breaks my heart.  I don’t want to leave Hazard.  You know, there’s still a heartbeat here.  It’s not dead.”

Mountain News & World Report is a bi-weekly production of WMMT, and new episodes air every other Thursday at 6pm on WMMT, with a repeat broadcast the following Sunday morning at 10:30.  To listen to previous episodes, check out our streaming archives.

appalachian history,
arts & culture,
coal industry,
economic transition,
food access,
healthy cooking,
healthy eating,
making connections,
mountain healthcare,
small business,
youth voice,