There’s an old joke that reminds me of how we can be in East Kentucky: “A long, long time ago, back when teachers could talk about things like religion in the classroom, there was a patient, young teacher who was talking to her class of young boys. She asked, ‘How many of you would like to go to heaven?’ All the hands instantly shot into the air … all except one. The teacher was quite astounded. She said, ‘Why Charlie! You mean you don’t want to go to heaven?’ Charlie, a bit sullenly, replied, ‘Sure, I want to go to heaven! Just not with that bunch!’”
We can be a lot like that in the mountains. It doesn’t matter how good an idea or program may be, we automatically fight for our own turf and take sides against our opponents. We typically view politics, public policy, education, and business, as a zero-sum game. That attitude probably served us well when we first came to these hills. There was little authority save that of loyalty to your people and clan. Later, as the economy changed and we became more industrial, this policy was a luxury but a cheap one. After all, others were footing the bills. Big coal companies, a flush federal government and a well-heeled Commonwealth picked up the bills, and we just fought over our fair share. Cooperation would have been nice, but non-cooperation really didn’t cost much.
Today, we live in a different world. With the coal industry withering, there are far fewer private sector jobs to be had. The federal government is no longer willing to provide large earmarks or other forms of appropriations. The state government is also showing signs of strain. And the dwindling of coal severance funding means our local governments will be even more strapped. As these resources dwindle they will make non-cooperation even more expensive.
In a future where funding for infrastructure is limited, counties and communities will have to make money last longer. This may mean pooling resources and creating new models for infrastructure development in areas like road building, public water and more. Projects like the Southeast Chamber’s “One East Kentucky”, which would consolidate economic development activities across 8 counties and their proposal for other communities to replicate the same process, could serve as a template. But note this organization’s challenges: getting eight Eastern Kentucky counties going in one direction is far from easy and will require extraordinary leadership and consensus building.
The best argument for cooperation is the reality of the new economy. Mining is a zero-sum game, but the future industries of Eastern Kentucky, such as tourism, value added agriculture, and entrepreneurial projects, requires a different approach; one based on cooperation and collaboration, not competition. Building these industries requires the creation of entrepreneurial ecosystems, synergistic partnerships, shared best practices, co-branding campaigns and more. This won’t be easy and old habits die hard, but the necessity of this approach will become ever clearer as the pie continues to shrink.
Johnathan Gay is the Director of the Kentucky Innovation Network office at Morehead State University. The opinions expressed here are his own.