Pikeville, Kentucky: Millionaires and Mobile Homes

Black and white aerial view of some homes and small town

Southern Exposure

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 3 No. 4, "Facing South." Find more from that issue here.

p>In 1976, the urban South finds itself strangely hidden by towering banks, hotels and convention centers. At a time when most Americans are recognizing that Bigger is not always Better, southern promoters continue to crisscross the region, hawking their promises of uniqueness through development and design. "Put your city on the map," they proclaim, "with the largest indoor mall in the world, the longest escalator, the biggest stadium. ..." The real-life headaches of ghettos, traffic-jams, pollution and crime are simply dismissed as "Yankee" problems.

In fact, too much of the urban development is merely an imitation of the Northeast. The traditional assets of the South—our sense of place, smaller population centers, more open space—are sacrificed for the glittering symbols of "progress." More importantly, the strength of our cities—our people—are ignored. Where is the community input in the developer's schemes? What happens to the dispossessed after their homes have become "urban renewed"? Who benefits from the new megastructures to "save" the downtowns?

These questions and more are now being asked by Southerners as they were a few years ago by anxious Northerners. In the following series of articles, three authors examine developments in three typical southern cities with an eye toward their impact on local people. In each case, they find a significant gap between the needs of the citizens and the ambitions of the developers, from Memphis' planned community at Shelby Farms, to Pikeville, Kentucky's attempt to move mountains, to Norfolk Gardens in downtown Norfolk, Virginia. How that gap is resolved ranges from the victory of organized citizens against the planners to the manipulation of public resources for private gain. In the last analysis, it seems, who wins and who loses from urban development is determined by who controls the planning process.


Pikeville, Kentucky, was once just another poverty-plagued Appalachian community. Only 6000 people live in the town, the county seat of Pike County. But in recent years Pikeville has become the focus of urban development plans which rival those of much larger cities. It's the nation's smallest Model City, a Look magazine All-America City and winner of enough All Kentucky City prizes to be in the state's permanent Hall of Fame. It has received more attention from organizers (see box) and the federal government's planners than most cities of any size. And now, with the inflated price of coal, Pikeville is a boom town. But for many residents, neither the planners' strategies nor the coal barons' success has done much to alter a life of poverty in the midst of plenty.


Coal Camp to Service Center

Pikeville lies crimped in a deep valley at a horseshoe bend of the Big Sandy River, in the heart of Appalachia's coalfields. The C&O Railroad divides the town and stretches into surrounding Pike County, the largest coal-producing county in the nation. Coal trucks squeeze through double-parked cars on Pikeville's two main streets, and busy railroad crossings often block the flow of traffic to the new interstate highways.

Since the fuel prices skyrocketed two years ago, coal operators and merchants agree they have never had it so good. Ninety new coal millionaires have helped spendable income in the county jump 50 percent to nearly $200 million. Claude Canada, a man with a fourth grade education who once mined coal for 19 cents a ton, says, "I'll make $19 million this year if Uncle Sam doesn't get it first." The assets of Pikeville's three banks have doubled to $319 million, making the city Kentucky's second largest banking center. Pikeville's Cadillac dealership is the fourth busiest in the nation. Mobile homes sell like hotcakes.

Despite such evidence of success, a mood of quiet desperation permeates the carnival atmosphere in Pikeville. People are out to get rich quick. They remember the unemployment lines and waves of out-migration during the late 1950's and 60's when the depressed coal industry sucked Pikeville's lifeblood dry. They know the dangers of being tied to the seesaw economics of King Coal.

And that's where the planners and their theories of stabilized growth come in.

Well before the current surge in the demand for coal, the federally-funded Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) and Pikeville's Mayor William Hambley decided they could save the city from boom-bust cycles of its one-resource economy by transforming the city into a regional service center for 300,000 people. The recent prosperity has not altered their vision. They are determined to make Pikeville a test case for a strategy which calls for spending public money to develop the infrastructure that will attract private industry.

According to the Hambley—ARC plan, a 1000 foot swathe would be cut through Peach Orchard Mountain, and 13 million cubic yards of its rubble dumped into nearby Poor Farm Hollow. The Levisa River and the C&O Railroad would be rerouted through the newly-opened gorge. The drained river bed and new level land, says Mayor William Hambley, will double Pikeville's usable land space for a mixture of public and commercial projects. These include an eight or ten story government building, a 5,000 seat amphitheatre, an eight-story old-age home, multilevel parking tiers, public housing and several commercial shopping centers. The top of a nearby mountain would be sliced off to build an air strip. The plan would cost $22 million, equal to the entire state's allocation for access roads. "What we're planning is an industrial center which will attract users, consumers and jobs," exudes the smooth-talking Hambley.

Mayor Hambley's achievements are impressive. Pikeville's city treasury has more spendable dollars than any other community in Eastern Kentucky. Thirteen years ago, the city was in debt. "We depended upon the water department for operating funds and gas revenues to run the garbage services," he says. Since -then, Hambley has increased the city budget from $112,000 to $718,000 and given city workers a pay hike every year. He single-handedly wedded together nine governmental agencies to finance his "planning universe" and uses a combination of down-home wit and arm-twisting to push what he considers "the best interests of our citizens" through various City Commission meetings. Even his friends say he often acts like a dictator. Explains Hambley, "At some point you must make up your mind and do the job."

Aside from his- grandiose style, Hambley's actual development plans follow the standard pattern of the ARC'S "growth center" strategy: labor and capital from the surrounding areas are imported, which in the past has caused rural extinction and urban strangulation; the city's poor—"their land is cheaper"—are uprooted to make way for a recreational and service center for the benefit of the middle classes. Many of Pikeville's residents have begun to wonder how all Hambley's wheeling and dealing will help them. "We've lost our sense of priority" says a local miner. "The Cut Through is important to Pikeville, but lots of children are going to schools in Quonset huts out in the county." A resident from Island Creek, who like many others asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job, said, "Hambley moves things all right—and one of them is my family."

What's happening to Island Creek, a hollow which winds around Pikeville, typifies how planning will affect many poorer families. It was recently incorporated into the city limits. Now 20 families suffer noxious fumes from a new Model Cities dump located directly above them and are battered by large chunks of coal tumbling from overloaded trucks. Hourly they are shaken by dynamite blasts for the Pikeville Cut on the other side of the mountain.

Repeated requests to be relocated have been denied by Pikeville's Housing and Urban Development Commissioner, who says, "Island Creek relocation isn't scheduled until the blasting reaches their side of the mountain — two years from now." Island Creek residents don't know if they can last that long. The blasts are causing their frame houses, clamped to the mountain edge, to slip down the 200 foot gorge. “You just can't bomb-blast these houses and expect them to stay put,” says one woman. She has had to move her refrigerator from her sinking kitchen. Her children now sleep with her, for fear their own bedroom will collapse. "It used to be we wanted to stay but now we just want to get out.”

The woman winced as the road-level window rattled with spattering gravel from a passing truck. "Oh, the officials sympathize with our immediate problem but the solution is always in somebody else's office,” she said. Highway Department officials claim their monitors indicate normal blast strength. Mayor Hambley says, "Construction damages are out of my hands.” Other city officials blame the coal truck vibrations, not the blasts, for the damages. The Holowell Construction Company foreman promised to ask the insurance company to investigate the problem. The insurance company claims Holowell never released the proper complaint documents. "We're trapped," said the woman. "We can't move into town because there's no housing and we can't stay here with that blasting coming closer every day."

While Island Creek citizens suffer from not enough attention, Pikeville's black community across the river, suffers from too much. The area, once known as Stringtown, has been renamed the Pikeville By-pass for urban renewal purposes. Two low income housing units are scheduled to replace By-pass homes.

"Changing the name to By-pass is telling us what they've been doing to us coloreds all these years," says one resident who works as a five dollar a day maid for coal operators in Pikeville's most expensive neighborhood. "There are no jobs for us so the young moved north and the old died." The county's black population decreased from approximately 1500 to 500 between 1960 and '70. "Anyway, we never had enough colored here to get what we wanted."

The development plans divide By- pass into thirds with low-income housing projects to be located at either end. There are no immediate plans for the center. To clear the homes from the end sections, the city temporarily relocated By-pass citizens into trailers placed across the river on the city side. The center, which had more homes than both of the end sections, was left untouched. According to Hambley's assistant, "We couldn't find all the owners of the homes in the central area." But one By-pass resident believes, "They just don't want to relocate all the colored across the river into town."

The city's decision to temporarily transplant some By-pass residents has created considerable chaos. None of the relocated families wants to return to their old community across the river. With only 44 new units planned, there may not be enough units to go around anyway.

The situation has been extremely confusing for the displaced residents. One old woman is pleased with her new trailer because ''the shack I used to live in wasn't fit for the rats." But she's frightened she'll soon be separated from her friends and family. "The mayor and everybody's been so nice to us but I still don't know what to expect," she says. "So I live afraid."


Playing Politics

If urban development programs haven't helped the poor, neither has the new coal-based prosperity.

Bob Holcomb, president of the Pike County Independent Coal Operators Association, says, "Federal development programs like the Appalachian Regional Commission haven't attracted one new industry to Pike County in all their ten years of operation. If they'd leave coal operators alone, we'd do what's best for the county." Holcomb and others agree that the outside energy conglomerates have "exploited" the region, but they claim that the new price of coal has allowed local operators to enter the field, which stimulates local jobs and local buying. Chamber of Commerce Director Hugh Collett thinks the county's social problems will soon disappear because the outside drain of capital is reversing. Local operators, he points out, "turn the money over seven times in the area compared to less than once by outside firms."

The Holcomb-Collett theory of development goes something like this: independent coal operators, responding to increased demand, open more mines and hire more workers. The operators and workers spend their money with community merchants and invest in local banks. Through a multiplier effect, the capital creates more jobs and by trickle-down economics, every¬ body benefits.

In fact, the trickle-down doesn't happen. True, the primed coal pump is gushing windfall profits for the operators and a currently steady income for 6000 coal miners and the urban-centered money system. But most of the county's 66,000 people receive little. Despite 91/2 billion tons of coal reserves, per capita income hovers at $2,250 — 52% below the U.S. average. Nearly half of the people depend upon some form of federal aid: welfare is the county's second largest source of income. Whether boom or bust, welfare statistics have remained nearly the same. The dual facets of the economy—coal and dole —are not unrelated; disability pensions and social security indicate most beneficiaries require assistance for coal-related reasons; and mechanization has given a boost to the unemployment rolls. Even with the recent up-turn in mining. Pike County's unemployed are not getting jobs because 3000-5000 laid-off workers from the northern industrial cities have returned home to glut the job market. Prosperity doesn't help the poor; it merely forces workers to move. And, with only 6000 manufacturing jobs in the surrounding five county area, if you can't get a job as a miner, you have no choice but welfare or migration.

The picture for education, housing, health care, and social services in the county is no better. "We've been weak on services in the past because we haven't had the revenues," admits County Judge Wayne T. Rutherford, the man responsible for raising taxes. Unlike Mayor Hambley, who at least increased industrial taxes in Pikeville, the county government has until this year refused to levy a franchise on coal production. According to State Senator Kelsey Friend, "County officials have been listening too hard to coal interests who have actively lobbied a policy of no coal taxes." The coal operators now embrace the $2 million annual franchise tax (10 cents per ton) which begins this year —and a $4.6 million severance tax which Judge Rutherford has in an escrow account — as a way to finance repairs on coal haul roads.

Despite these revenues, Judge Rutherford provides only $23,612 for county social programs, most of which pays the salary of the director who says she only works half time for social services.

Even the federal revenue-sharing funds bypassed needs in the county. Rutherford used his authority to disperse the money to tighten his control of local politics and launch a statewide campaign for Lieutenant Governor. He bolstered his staff from 3 to 27 — putting some of his personal campaign workers on the payroll, Sen. Friend charges; increased the sheriff's forces; spent $297,500 for courthouse remodeling (including a glass outdoor elevator for the three-story building); agreed to build a new courthouse complex in distant Phelps; and cranked out a million dollars in road rehabilitation.

While Rutherford further entrenches his political machine, rural citizens suffer. Two years ago, when Paw Paw's schoolhouse burned down, no alternative school was offered to the children. One student who finally began attending a nearby Virginia school, said, "They made me lay around here for two years. Now all I want to do is get my education and get out of here." Nearly 20 percent of the county have less than five years of formal schooling.

One project, which would have been the first community-wide water system, exemplifies how county government moves rapidly for individual interests while ignoring promised community services. In 1968 the Economic Development Administration (EDA) loaned the county over a million dollars to build the Marrowbone water system. "Our water supply collects in abandoned truck mines and floods through a pipe we hooked on to it," says Rouie Branham who borrowed $10,000 to rehabilitate his house and install plumbing fixtures in anticipation of the promised water system. Most residents paid the tap on fee and waited for the pipe.

But for nearly 70 families, no pipe was laid. A grocery store owner says, "Congressman Carl Perkins came down just before the election to dedicate the system — it wasn't even one third built— and it just stopped after the election was over." Recently the water-waiters, some with open ditches waiting for the promised pipeline, asked the contractor, Napier Electric and Construction Company, when they'd get their water. Napier, who had received the full payment of $640,000 to complete the five miles of pipe, told them, "Never.”

Those homeowners connected to the pipe are subject to the problems of shoddy construction: long periods of low pressure or no water at all. The pipes, built close to the surface of roads, crumble and break from the weight of the coal trucks. County officials admit the water tanks have leaked as much as 150,000 gallons overnight. Marrowbone citizens spent seven years arguing with county officials to rectify the situation. The luckiest got their $25 refund. Now, Judge Rutherford wants to build a coal gassification plant. Gassification plants consume a lot of water. Rutherford is negotiating with public and private agencies to finance improvements of the Marrowbone plant to run a pipeline away from the community to the projected gassification plant site. Rutherford's advance man, Steve Friend, is worried about the finances. "If EDA participates in the funding, we'll have civil rights people down our necks saying we discriminate against poor people for not providing them water. I want the line in for development," he said. "I don't care who hooks on after that.”



While active repression by coal operators is not a Pike County unknown, the mere threat of violence or recrimination often silences people. Community people, many of whose jobs depend upon coal, rarely criticize the industry publicly. Many remember the industry-wide shut-down that stopped union organizing efforts. Others remember the '60s harassment of the political left: bombing the home of Southern Conference Educational Fund workers Alan and Margaret McSurely, their subsequent sedition case and erection of the Kentucky Un-American Activities Committee, requested by, among others, Bob Holcomb —then Chamber of Commerce Director. Some welfare dependents have been threatened with loss or delay of payments if they organized to form a welfare rights group, according to a community clinic worker in a neighboring county.

Usually, overt threats are not necessary. Along with economic consolidation is information consolidation. Coal operators sit as trustees of Pikeville College; the school system is an important patronage vehicle for county government; the only newspaper, The Pike County News, is owned by the

son of a former coal operator whose cousin owns the radio station. Information is fragmented in the huge county where there are few telephones and bad roads. Two separate community groups formed to combat abysmal road conditions. Both chose the motto "No Roads —No Votes" but didn't know of each others' existence until they attended a special court meeting to discuss the road conditions.

When citizens do organize, their squelched efforts make them wonder whether they can take any successful corrective action. A Miller's Creek school bus missed 18 school days due to an impassable coal truck-battered road. When the bus could pass through the muck, it twice skidded to the mountain's edge. Angry parents, who spent months trying to get the roads cleared, said their children's lives were in danger. None of them had ever protested before, but to dramatize the situation, they decided to picket. They were promptly arrested, hauled to jail, and bailed out by the local magistrate. A policeman driving the picketers to jail got stuck in the muddy road and radioed to headquarters that he had never seen a poorer excuse for a road.

While the picketers were struggling to get their road fixed, the officials were making other plans. An Army Corps of Engineers representative said relocation would be cheaper than building a new road. Judge Rutherford said, "We have strong indication that the families are fed up with living way back there in the hollow with those bad roads. I think the families would agree, now, to relocate."

The community discussed the matter and decided they wanted to remain in their homes with access to a safe blacktopped road. "We want to live here," one woman said. "We don't want to be railroaded out of our homes just so the coal operators can make a profit."

Pike County's dilemma is a microcosm of our national dilemma. While positions appear more polarized here than in regions with economic diversity, the issue is clear: power continues to consolidate, leaving little room for economic or political option. Some economists say the economic and service inequities as well as coal's seesaw swings would reverse if the mineral belonged to a locally-controlled, publicly-owned corporation. Profits would be reinvested locally for broad based citizen benefit to build an economy within the structure of a rational energy policy. But that's not happening. Employment is declining, welfare increasing. Fewer are needed to run the technocratic economy. Coal operators envision the day when Appalachian coal will be gassified underground. That would mean even fewer jobs still. The future is not being planned for the people such as those who live in Pike County.