Geography works against old coal counties

Saturday, September 8, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Forsyth County in Georgia and Harlan County in Kentucky are both in Appalachia, but that's about all they have in common.

In Forsyth, near Atlanta, the growth is so explosive that schools can't be built fast enough. But in Harlan, along the Virginia border, schools are closing as the population dwindles.

Throughout Appalachia, areas near growing cities are booming, while more remote areas continue to battle poverty and lose residents.

"Appalachia has gone from a region of almost uniform distress to one of contrasts," said Jesse White, who heads the federal Appalachian Regional Commission.

Federal money helped

Appalachia runs along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from southern New York to northern Mississippi. A 1964 presidential report described the 13-state region as one "set apart, geographically and statistically," from the rest of the country.

A year later, the government created the Appalachian Regional Commission. The commission has brought in billions of federal dollars for highways, economic development, health care and education. The result has been a big reduction in the number of counties classified as distressed: 219 in 1960 to 114 now.

"We're halfway home, but we still have a long way to go," commission spokesman Mike Kiernan said.

The commission recently released figures showing the 406-county region experienced a 9.1 percent increase in its population in the 1990s, up from a 1.6 percent increase in the 1980s. But the growth has not been uniform.

The most dramatic change has occurred in the South. Thanks to new roadways and other infrastructure improvements, many formerly rural, poor counties have turned into burgeoning bedroom communities for cities like Birmingham, Ala.; Greensboro-Winston-Salem, N.C.; Greenville, S.C., and Chattanooga and Knoxville, Tenn.

Georgia changes

Nowhere is the growth more striking than in north Georgia, which had nine of the 10 fastest-growing counties in Appalachia during the 1990s. Forsyth County's population grew 123 percent, to 98,407,

"The main thing that has changed is now this area is accessible. Before this was rural. There were just two lane roads," said Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., who grew up in the mountain community Young Harris.

Miller said that isolation forced people to leave the region, rather than flock to it the way they are today.

"The people back then had to go elsewhere to find jobs," he said. "There was not any work here."

Such stories about north Georgia's past sound a lot like present-day Harlan County. Its population dropped 9 percent, from 36,574 to 33,202, in the last decade. The area, famous for a 1970s miners' strike that was the subject of the Oscar-winning film "Harlan County, U.S.A.," has struggled as coal mining jobs have disappeared.

"The real areas of distress are eastern Kentucky, a good deal of West Virginia, southwestern Virginia and southern Ohio, and the common denominator really is coal," White said, adding that Appalachia lost roughly half its coal jobs between 1987 and 1997.

Geography also is a problem for many of those areas.

"Typically these core coal counties are in topography that's characterized by extremely steep mountains and hills and very narrow valleys, which are in flood plains," said Ewell Balltrip, a Harlan native and the executive director of the Kentucky Appalachian Commission. "When we have these significant rainfalls, then you consequently have floods in the valley floors. You just simply do not want to build any facilities in the flood way."

Terrain stops development

Such terrain makes it difficult to construct highways, a key ingredient for growth. New roads, along with a mild climate and low cost of living, have helped attract retirees to the region, particularly in Tennessee and North Carolina. And highways also helped spur industry, notably automakers that have built plants in places such as Tennessee, Alabama and South Carolina.

About 2,500 miles, or 80 percent, of a federal Appalachian highway system envisioned in 1965 has been completed or is under construction. Many of the remaining 500 miles are in remote, mountainous areas and may never be built because of the cost.

While still hopeful highways will come their way, local leaders in depressed areas of Appalachia are taking their own steps to spur development. In Kentucky, for example, Gov. Paul Patton has placed an emphasis on bringing satellite college campuses and industrial parks to the region in hopes of boosting education and employment levels.

The federal government has recognized that economically distressed areas such as Harlan need extra help. House lawmakers recently endorsed a new policy that would require half of the Appalachian commission's funding to go to counties such as Harlan.

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