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The Quest for Transition in Kentucky's Mountain Towns

PHOTO: Harlan County native Kimberly Shepherd wants to stay and live in eastern Kentucky, but says transitioning the region to a new economy is crucial. She is one of the speakers during this year's I Love Mountains Day in Frankfort. Photo courtesy of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.
PHOTO: Harlan County native Kimberly Shepherd wants to stay and live in eastern Kentucky, but says transitioning the region to a new economy is crucial. She is one of the speakers during this year's I Love Mountains Day in Frankfort. Photo courtesy of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.
February 12, 2015

FRANKFORT, Ky. - Citizens are rallying at the state Capitol on Thursday for what has become an annual tradition - "I Love Mountains Day."

The event is organized by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a grassroots organization which has been in the vanguard pushing for an economic transition in eastern Kentucky through its Appalachia's Bright Future initiative. One of the faces of that effort is 30-year old Kimberly Shepherd, who was born in the region and does not want to leave.

"I want to stay here," she says. "I'm actually fifth generation in Harlan County and I want my daughter to grow up to where I grew up. I don't think we should have to leave our homes to sustain our families."

As Shepherd talks transition, so do others. Governor Steve Beshear and Kentucky's most tenured congressman, Hal Rogers, have launched Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR), a wide-ranging effort to build a healthier regional economy.

President Obama has indicated he wants to see billions of dollars invested in Central Appalachia.

Noting her grandfather worked in the coal mines of Harlan County, Shepherd says it's time for the region to re-invent its economy so it's not so dependent on a dwindling coal industry.

"The main thing I want people to know is we're a lot more similar than we are different," she says. "That divide is what's causing a lot of the problems."

Created last year, SOAR will convene its second annual summit on Monday, Feb. 16, in Pikeville. The governor's office says the goal of the summit is to "build on strengths and find community-generated solutions to chronic challenges."

Shepherd is attending community college. She says her hope is to find a career that pays better than minimum wage.

"We definitely need better jobs, and people here are used to working with their hands," says Shepherd. "We need to find a way for people to put their hands to use in a way that they can sustain themselves."

Greg Stotelmyer , Public News Service - KY