PIKEVILLE, Ky. — Here in the heart of central Appalachian coal country, an economic experiment is underway inside an airy renovated Coca-Cola bottling plant. Most days, Michael Harrison, a former mine electrician and “buggy man” who once drove trucks 700 feet underground, can be found hunched over a silver laptop, designing websites for clients like the Pikeville tourism board.
Mr. Harrison, 36, is one of 10 former mine workers employed at BitSource, an internet start-up founded by two Pikeville businessmen determined to prove a point: that with training and encouragement, Kentucky miners can learn to code.
“We told them, ‘Quit thinking of yourselves as unemployed coal workers; you’re technology workers,’” said Rusty Justice, a founder of BitSource. He called his pep talks “reimagination training.”
Nearly 13,000 coal jobs — and countless more in related industries — have disappeared in Kentucky since President Obama took office; coal employment is at its lowest level since 1898. In Washington, Democrats and Republicans remain locked in a feud over whether Mr. Obama’s aggressive environmental regulations amount to a “war on coal.” On the presidential campaign trail, Donald J. Trump is vowing to “put our miners back to work.”
But across central Appalachia, and especially here in eastern Kentucky, elected officials, business leaders, environmentalists and community advocates are looking beyond politics to wrestle with a question essential to the region’s survival: What comes after coal?
The founders of BitSource are not the only ones thinking creatively; there are nascent efforts in craft agriculture and energy efficiency as well. These initiatives will not cure central Appalachia’s economic woes; at BitSource, Mr. Harrison was among 1,000 laid-off miners who applied for 10 jobs.
Rather, said Lora Smith, who oversees grants in central Appalachia for the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, they represent lurching steps into what one local writer called “a terrifying liberation” for a region rich in natural resources whose people have deep ties to the land.
It is “terrifying,” Ms. Smith said, “because people are out of work, but it’s also this liberation, to reimagine what this place can be…”
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