In Kentucky's Dying Coalfields, Can Mining Jobs Be Transformed Into Sustainable Jobs?

Excerpt from article published on 12 Dec. 2016 by Courtney Balestier. For full article, click here

Gwendolyn Christon, the 61-year-old owner of the IGA grocery store in Isom, Kentucky, has been working at the store since she graduated high school in 1973. This fact—plus her honeyed voice and warm nature—goes a long way toward explaining the effortless rapport she has with her customers. From her store’s local produce to its fresh fried chicken—the kitchen crew starts cooking every day at 5:30 a.m.—Christon’s IGA is a community hub: It serves 5,500 customers a week and employs 25 people. Christon considers these workers family, and she takes seriously her role in helping them make a living. She also saw jobs in the area disappearing, and that fewer jobs meant lower sales. So when she began looking closely at her profit-and-loss reports for a way to stay viable as sales shrank, her eyes went straight to the store's $11,000 monthly electric bill.

To solve the problem, she met with Les Roll, the enterprise development project specialist at the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED), a 40-year-old Appalachian advocacy group based a couple hours away in Berea. She had learned about a MACED program, Energy Efficient Enterprises, that does energy-efficiency retrofits on commercial buildings. Roll told Christon they could loan her the money to do the upgrade. Christon was incredulous that such a good deal was possible, but sure enough, with a $418,000 loan from MACED, she retrofitted her lighting system in 2015 and the HVAC this year, tasks that involve energy-saving changes like swapping in high-performance lighting and installing programmable thermostats. When the loan is paid off—she’s aiming to have it done in 10 years—Christon will clear an extra $3,300 in profit each month.

This kind of economic solution, based on local resources and assets, is a key part of MACED's goal for what director Peter Hille calls "a just transition": a move to a post-coal economy that isn't dependent on just one industry, but that lifts up the local people as it's being built. The state of Kentucky has a diverse economy, but the coal country of eastern Kentucky does not. "Cities that focus on one thing have great boom periods," says Chris Bollinger, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Kentucky. "But eventually the bottom falls out of that industry, because no industry stays the same forever." As Hille puts it: "We still need an industrial-scale solution, because we’ve got an industrial-scale problem. There needs to be some big things, and there also needs to be a whole lot of small things."

And for Christon, the small things are working: Sales have increased in the brighter environment, and the savings has allowed her to lower prices on some items. In the produce section, the retrofitted cases gleam with vegetables as well as new items, like tofurkey sausage and Naked smoothes, that Christon has started selling to court the area’s health-conscious millennials away from big-box stores. Products last longer now, because of the cases’ consistent temperatures; volume has increased about $6,000 per week; and Christon is getting newer, younger customers: "And that’s exactly what we need," she says.

For full article, click here