Brook Smith stood on top of an old coal mine in Kentucky, thinking about what could be. His friend Penny Peavler, who helped develop the Bourbon Trail, had a couple of maps that she rolled out.
They have this crazy idea for a tourist attraction on and in an old coal mine, and this place is a good candidate. Viewed from a distance, this mountain top would look like those across the valley, oddly flat where there should be a peak. It’s like the coal companies swung a giant golf club and cleaved the tops right off.
Close up, the scars and machinery left over from decades of mining are strangely beautiful. There are butterflies and wildflowers at our feet. A twisting road leads down to a mine shaft, a long sluice, a man-made lake and a slag hill — hard and soft bones of an industrial past. You can see why Smith has a vision to build a pavilion for a massive modern art masterwork he owns, Cripplewood, by Berlinde de Bruyckere. It’s nearly 60 feet long, made of wax, depicting a fallen tree.
Smith and Peavler both have long track records, in finance and tourism, respectively. Smith, who made a fortune in the insurance business, is known for unexpected wins. And mining has turned into tourism destinations elsewhere in the world — like in Cornwall, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
So maybe the idea, that a small portion of the 50 million people living in the megalopolis and looking for day trips would make their way here, to historic mountains and an ancient hardwood forest outside their back door, is not so crazy after all.
“You can see what it could be, right?” Smith says, looking up from the map.
A visit to Appalachia, like all good travel, causes you to question what you know and how you know it. I toured Southern Appalachia in early May, in that brief hopeful period when we thought the lockdown might have contained the virus. The tour had a special meaning, because of that window of time. I found all kinds of unexpected things in Appalachia, from a connection to the actress Laura Linney – I’m a fan — to a real estate boom in Corbin, Ky., and the country’s third-largest accelerator in Chattanooga.
It’s not all moonbows, of course, though the one that appears regularly over Cumberland Falls was another discovery.
Appalachia, a huge region comprising 25 million people and parts of 13 states, remains poorer than the rest of the United States. Median household income in Appalachia rose 5 percent to $49,747 in 2014–2018 but remained at only 83 percent of the national average. Broadband Internet is still a pipedream in a lot of Appalachia – though not all of it, as I’d come to find out.
And coal, the region’s economic driver, is dying. This year, no new coal-generated power came online in the United States. In March, the Tennessee Valley Authority closed its coal-burning power plant in Paradise, Ky., in the county that once produced more coal than any other in the country. In January, BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, said it would no longer invest in companies that generate more than 25% of their revenue from coal.
John Prine told us this would be good news back in 1978, when he said, “they dug for the coal till the land was forsaken and they wrote it all down as the progress of man.” Remember the coal ash spill in 2008, that dumped 525 million gallons of toxic coal ash in the Tennessee River? Or maybe you don’t. It was an environmental disaster greater than the Exxon Valdez spill, but it’s the latter that became symbolic. Appalachia comes in and out of American consciousness, as the magical and sometimes terrifying woods of our imagination.
What Could A New Economy Look Like?
Over dinner in Corbin, Ky., I meet some of the people trying to build a new future for the region. Smith provided seed funding and philanthropic support for many of the entrepreneurial projects in Kentucky, where he was born and reared.
“I’d be in boardrooms in New York, and they’d say: You’re from Kentucky. Why are you here and what can you do for us?” jokes Smith, who chair of the board of the entrepreneurship organization Endeavor Louisville. He wrote surety bonds — a kind of a contract guarantee — for companies in the mining, waste, and other industries, where prices fluctuate and liabilities are many and complex. Stocked with stories, Smith tells one of handling a transaction involving deposit escrow bonds that involved Donald Trump. His reward for successfully navigating the Las Vegas based obligations was a poster signed by Trump, with “great job” inked in gold sharpie and underneath it project wording with “International” misspelled, as Smith says, “front and center.”
“It ended up in the can,” he says, by which he means he hung it up in the restroom.
He sold his agency, which was writing close to $100 million in premiums, to Acrisure in 2014, and in 2018, he and his partners sold insurance companies they owned to Japanese conglomerate Sompo.
Corbin is at the heart of Eastern Kentucky’s revival – which is seemingly slowed, but not halted by COVID. The airy, brick-walled restaurant we’re in – nationally recognized — is owned by Kristin Smith and her partner. After grad school in California, Smith came back to take care of her grandfather and run the family farm, and opened the Wrigley Tap Room.
I’m across the table from Lora Smith (no relation – there’s a lot of Smiths in Kentucky) who runs the Appalachian Impact Fund. In an op-ed in the Chronicle of Philanthropy she gave some examples of why Appalachia’s progress is mostly home grown. National foundations just don’t get it, like the ones that called for proposals for bike-based transport to addiction treatment, or telemedicine. There are, well, mountains here. What’s also here is the heart of the opiod crisis.
People who work in Central Appalachia commit to witnessing a lot of death. In some towns around here, drug companies shipped more than 100 pain pills a year per resident, according to a Washington Post analysis. Legally prescribed pills led to addiction, and then illegal opioids. Down the table, someone describes driving down the road, and seeing a man, dead in the cab of a pickup truck, with a needle stuck in his arm. The kicker: The man was a friend.
Not Just Words
Geoff Marietta and his wife, Sky, moved to Appalachia, where she had grown up, after they both earned advanced degrees at Harvard. There, Geoff Marietta had founded a company, Giant Otter Technologies, which was acquired by Drift.com. They moved back to Kentucky because Sky’s mother was dying, and then, they stayed.
The duo run a network of small businesses in real estate, technology and specialty retail. They just opened Moonbow Mercantile – ice cream, candy and local handcrafts– in nearby Williamsburg. Geoff Marietta also runs Invest 606, an accelerator that awards $30,000 in prize money to small businesses. Previous winners have included a lavender farm that’s invented a de-budding machine for flower-based botanicals and a school administrator with a way to retrofit doors to make them bulletproof.
“The wildlands and authentic culture is not replicable anywhere,” he says. “Appalachia is totally undiscovered yet has insane potential.”
The family invested more than $1 million in their various ventures. In Corbin, they purchased a building three years ago for $11 a square foot and invested $40-$50 a square foot. Real estate is now selling at $80-$90 a square foot.
Not everything is micro or fledgling in Appalachia. One of the biggest employers in Corbin is Webbed Sphere, a group of e-commerce companies that includes Sixhogs.com, a third-party merchant on Amazon and Trollandtoad.com, which re-sells collectible cards – like Magic and Pokémon. “A lot of people come to Appalachia with words. What means more than the words is doing things,” says co-owner Andrew Pennington. Revenue is about $50 million annually, he says.
At dinner, it dawns on me that everyone around the table is white. Corbin is what’s known as a sundown town. In 1919, it expelled all its Black residents; just before the pandemic, it issued a proclamation apologizing for the history. Racism is deeply entwined with poverty: To build an economy beyond coal, you need people.
The Creative Economy
The arts are part of Central Appalachia, woven unabashedly into the economy in a way I’ve rarely seen elsewhere. When I tell a friend of mine, Laura Callanan, about what I’m learning about Appalachia, she sends me a list of people who work in the arts in the region, like the Sewanee Writers Conference and The Horn in the West, a drama produced every year at the Daniel Boone Amphitheater. She reminds me of Cratis Williams and Appalachian State University.
Callanan, a former senior deputy chairman at the National at the National Endowment for the Arts, is putting the idea of the creative economy on the philanthropic map with Upstart Co-Lab. How can the arts be seriously invested in, and grown, as a source of dignified jobs and equity? She recently announced $1 billion in commitments from impact investors to the creative economy.
And then she sends me a gem. Her husband, who died in 2011, was the writer Romulus Linney, whose family was from Appalachian North Carolina. When I look him up, I see that he is the father of the actress Laura Linney, whose raw performances seem to have the same edge I find in many of the people I meet in Appalachia.
I open a package on my doorstep from Callanan to find Heathen Valley, Romulus Linney’s first novel, about a preacher in early 1800s Appalachia.
“The dew leans heavy on the grass, pressing it down. Mary’s Peak has vanished in the night and the mist is on the slopes, leaving only the tops of my hickories moonlit now. Past them, down there in that scooped out, blackdirt valley, I can see the broken stones, wet and slick from the rain. They are reflecting the moon that just came out, that peers down through the mist like a delicate lady trying to find somebody in the crowd.”
Peavler, who relentlessly deepens conversations, sends me a note about another story to explore: historically black colleges and universities in Appalachia, from West Virginia State University and Berea College. And she mentions the Fab Five and the two Appalachian writers, Bobby Ann Mason and Gurney Norman. And then there’s the music, and the luthiers at work in Hindman, Ky., hand making guitars and mandolins.
A Detour Through Chattanooga
The southern reaches of Appalachia are in Georgia and Alabama, and the northern points stretch up to New York. I didn’t get down that far on my trip, but I did drive through Charleston, W.Va., where coal money still has a stranglehold on the politics, and billionaire governor Jim Justice looms like a black cloud over the state’s reputation.
I detoured through Chattanooga, where, in early May, there were relatively contained Black Lives Matter protests. Chattanooga is a story of Appalachian transformation that’s already begun: In 1969, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare named it the most polluted city in the country: It had a heavy industrial base and lots of coal furnaces.
These days, it has a bike trails, a beautiful walking bridge over the Tennessee and a famous incubator. It wasn’t open to visitors, but I went to check out the neighborhood surrounding the 127,000-square foot building, touted as the country’s third largest. The program is more than 30 years old and graduated its 600th business in November. One of the city’s standout startups is FreightWaves, which offers real-time analytics about the freight industry, and which industry publications peg as nearing a $1 billion valuation.
Those transit hubs, from Louisville to Staunton, Va., to Chattanooga, circle Appalachia. The railroads and rivers carried the resources out of the mountains. So maybe it’s time for America to give back to Appalachia.
Which brings me back to the mountaintop where Smith and Peavler want to bring a new resource, people, in. They’ve called their project, “Somewhere Appalachia.” They’re working on partnerships to make it happen, though Smith says he will fund part of the $25 million for the feasibility study and phase one himself. There’s a long road ahead: the feasibility study, acquiring the land, and then the phases of construction. Eventually, they want to see a place for people to camp, a restaurant, and interpreters who would explain what coal did for the people of Appalachia, and what it did to the people of Appalachia.
Smith has Cripplewood, which he owns with his wife, Pam, waiting. Part of his passion for turning an old coal mine into a destination comes from the moment he saw the sculpture on display in New York City. He paid $1 million for it.
“I’ve never had that experience in front of a piece of art, but when I saw it I knew Appalachia is the place where this work needs to go,” he says.