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From Coal to Craft: Eastern Kentucky’s Changing Economy

Part 2 of a 4-part Forefront series examining eastern Kentucky's transition away from a coal-centric economy. Read the series

Swiftly changing economic conditions, highly competitive trade growth, and a future relying on evolving technology, a transition is taking place in eastern Kentucky.

The decline of the coal industry and loss of thousands of mining jobs creates a need to reexamine a new economic direction for eastern Kentucky. One option is through “creative placemaking” in which partners from disparate sectors use arts and culture activities to strategically shape the character of a region or neighborhood. It’s an integrative approach to neighborhood planning and economic development, encouraging local communities to use their distinctive resources, cultural diversity, and unique attributes to stimulate their economies.

The economic impact of creative placemaking

Creative placemaking is a significant economic development tool and can be highly transformative for a region in terms of income generation and job creation. The Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account (ACPSA) is a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Department of Commerce's Bureau of Economic Analysis. This partnership produced the first federal in-depth analysis of the impact that arts and culture have on economic conditions.

In 2012, the ACPSA reported that arts and culture production contributed more than $698 billion to the US economy, or 4.3 percent of the US gross domestic product. To put this in perspective, that’s more than either the construction ($586.7 billion) or the transportation and warehousing sectors ($464.1 billion). There were 4.7 million workers employed in the production of arts and culture activities, generating $334.9 billion in compensation.

Creative placemaking is a significant economic development tool and can be highly transformative for a region in terms of income generation and job creation.

Arts and culture spending has a ripple effect on the overall economy, boosting ancillary businesses. The ACPSA calculated that for every 100 jobs created in the arts, 62 additional jobs are also created in fields such as retail, information technology, manufacturing, and food service, to name just a few. That’s a big impact.

Artisan Center in Knox County, Kentucky. Photo courtesy of Timothy D. Hudson.​

Artisan Center in Knox County, Kentucky. Photo courtesy of Timothy D. Hudson.​

The creative industry ranks on the same level with many other sectors, for instance, information technologies, communications, transportation, distribution, and logistics. Within Kentucky’s creative industry, according to the 2014 Creative Industry Report issued by the Kentucky Arts Council, there are approximately 60,000 direct jobs, a number which places the creative industry ahead of other key industries such as bioscience and auto and aircraft manufacturing in terms of employment. Including creative occupations, indirect jobs associated with suppliers, and spending by those employed within the creative industry, creative occupations add up to 108,500 jobs.

A Case for investment: two examples

Creative placemaking has occurred in communities throughout eastern Kentucky for some time. The region traditionally has been known for its creative assets, but during the past few years new funding mechanisms have been created by the NEA, ArtsPlace, and Kentucky Arts Council to stimulate economic development in rural communities.

Berea College

Berea College is a small liberal arts college recognized nationally for its labor program in which all students participate in work study. Aptly termed “work colleges” offer students enhanced learning opportunities by integrating work, learning, and service during students’ college experience. Located in Berea, Kentucky, Berea College is distinctive among post-secondary institutions for providing free education to students from selected counties: Every admitted student from an Appalachian county is provided the equivalent of a 4-year full-tuition scholarship.

Late in 2015, the college received a $100,000 Our Town grant from the NEA to help spur economic development for rural communities in eastern Kentucky. The award is given to projects that could make communities more lively, beautiful, and resilient with the help of the arts. Berea College’s project goal is to map out areas of rural Kentucky where a creative culture may be used to help create economic development. The college is partnering with 8 rural communities, the Kentucky Arts Council, and Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation. This initiative is relatively new, enacted as coal production in the region has declined.

The college will focus its project efforts within several HUD “Promise Zones,” communities with high poverty rates where the federal government and local leaders work together to increase economic activity, improve educational opportunities, leverage private investment, reduce violent crime, enhance public health, and address other priorities. The counties of Bell, Clay, Harlan, Knox, Letcher, Perry, and Whitley, some of the hardest hit economically by the downturn in coal production, comprise Berea College’s zones. Overall, they have a poverty rate of 30 percent, with 2,724 direct coal jobs lost since 2002.


Appalshop was founded in 1969 as a project of the US government's War on Poverty. Located in Letcher County, Kentucky, the region has been hit hard by the loss of coal jobs and is battling high unemployment. The organization is 1 of 10 Community Film Workshops conceived through a partnership between the Federal Office of Economic Opportunity and the American Film Institute.

In 1974, the initial worker-operated organization evolved into a nonprofit company now called Appalshop and established itself as a hub of filmmaking in Appalachia. Since that time, it’s produced more than 100 films covering subjects such as coal mining, the environment, traditional culture, and the economy. It has branched out to include theater, music and spoken-word recordings, radio, photography, multimedia, and books. Appalshop’s goals are to increase arts, media, and technology training opportunities for young people in the mountains and to strengthen longstanding cultural institutions in the county. In addition, it contributes to diversifying Letcher County’s economy by helping develop tourism opportunities celebrating place-based traditions and creating conditions that can support entrepreneurs building creative businesses in the community. Selected from a pool of nearly 1,300 applicants, Appalshop received a grant of $450,000 from ArtPlace America’s 2015 National Grants Program.

Making Dollars and Sense

Creative placemaking is broader than just an organization or an artist. It’s about community transformation. And it’s about dollars and cents—and what makes sense.

Creative placemaking is broader than just an organization or an artist. It’s about community transformation. And it’s about dollars and cents—and what makes sense.

Artisans bring new life into the community. Foot traffic from arts and culture events is a bonus for secondary businesses, restaurants, bars, and hotels. Creative placemaking stimulates public and private spaces, revitalizes structures and streetscapes, and improves local business sustainability. It brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired in small towns.

The creative culture is an enticement for tourism through the promise of a unique regional experience. Data presented at the Kentucky Travel Industry Association’s annual conference in October 2015 indicate that travel and tourism in Kentucky is larger than ever: The industry increased by more than $2.2 billion over the past 5 years and has reached $13 billion.

The story continues to emerge from Kentucky’s rising creative industry, developing from the data and narrative of Kentucky’s artists who participate in the sector. The story is one of an entrepreneurial drive and the role artists play in the development of Kentucky businesses. It emerges from the challenges present in rapidly evolving new technologies and the transition from a regional economy dependent upon natural resource extraction to one that will draw upon more diverse assets, talents, and skills. And the story’s not over yet.

Sum and substance: Creative placemaking is reinvigorating eastern Kentucky’s economy and communities.

Stay tuned: We have more work focusing on eastern Kentucky planned for this year, including future articles on ways regions can diversify their economies and a look at migration data to see what trends are occurring in eastern Kentucky.

The major players

In the last 2 years, strategic partners from a group of foundations and government agencies have jointly invested in creative placemaking initiatives across the eastern Kentucky region.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) The NEA is a federally funded organization. Its funding provides individuals and communities the chance to participate in the arts on many levels, be it creative or experiential. In its first round of grants for fiscal year 2016, the NEA has awarded $200,000 total to 8 Kentucky arts organizations. Grantees include Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, and Appalshop in Whitesburg, Kentucky.
ArtPlace America ArtPlace is a 10-year collaboration among a number of foundations, federal agencies, and financial institutions. Its mission is to position arts and culture as a core sector of comprehensive community planning and development in order to strengthen the social, physical, and economic fabric of local communities. Since 2012, it has awarded approximately $1.2 million to 4 communities in eastern Kentucky. These 4 grants will incorporate landscape design, public art, spaces for performance, and temporary installations alongside a walking path in a rural Appalachian coalfield county. Grantees include the River Arts Greenway in Hazard, the Higher Ground Project in Cumberland, Mining the Meaning in Whitesburg, and LuigART Makers Spaces in Lexington.
The Kentucky Arts Council A state government agency responsible for developing and promoting support for the arts in Kentucky, the Council awarded 73 grants totaling over $415,000 in eastern Kentucky in 2015.

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