Eastern Kentucky can become an appealing regional destination for visitors from Kentucky and surrounding states, but making that happen will require long-term commitments from the private and public sectors to develop the tourism attractions that would be necessary, according to a recent study by the Kentucky Chamber Foundation.
“A destination that features gorgeous scenery, bluegrass music, Kentucky bourbon, local arts and crafts and multiple outdoor recreation, shopping and dining options could be very popular among visitors from Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia, as well as Kentucky,” the Chamber’s consultants conclude.
The Kentucky Chamber, the state’s largest business organization, decided to take a serious look at tourism potential in Eastern Kentucky because of the decline in the region’s coal jobs and because of the special interest that recent Chamber leaders have in the area. The Chamber’s past two board chairmen are Eastern Kentucky natives: Jim Booth, CEO of Booth Energy in Inez, served as Chamber chairman in 2013, and Luther Deaton, chairman of Central Bank in Lexington and originally from Breathitt County, was chairman in 2012.
The Chamber commissioned AECOM, an international consulting firm that specializes in economic analysis, to conduct the study earlier this year. The purpose of the study was “to take a serious look at the tourism potential of Eastern Kentucky and to create a dialogue about how to develop an underdeveloped region of the state,” said Dave Adkisson, president and CEO of the Chamber.
The study analyzes such national and state tourism trends as how far people are willing to travel for personal recreation, how much Baby Boomers are willing to spend, what types of recreation draw what types of visitors, the current mix of attractions in the region, the availability of broadband technology and the various restrictions on alcoholic beverage sales in the area. The study also looked at other regions of the country, including Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge, Tenn.; Branson, Mo.; Wisconsin Dells, Wis; and Bentonville, Ark.
The study offers a shopping list of possibilities, ranging from outlet malls to regional resorts to indoor waterparks to casinos. The study does not recommend a specific development for a specific county in Eastern Kentucky. According to Booth, “this is consistent with the marching orders we gave the consultants. Tell us what has been successful around the country, especially in rural areas. Tell us what tourists are willing to spend money on. Tell us what might work. Tell us if there could be a well-planned Gatlinburg in Eastern Kentucky.”
The Chamber acknowledged that it commissioned the study with a limited agenda. Rather than tackling the host of issues facing Eastern Kentucky and other rural areas (such as education attainment, health care, drug abuse, the “brain drain,” etc.), the Chamber decided to build on the region’s natural beauty, relatively good highway access and central location relative to more than two-thirds of the nation’s population and to focus on tourism as a possible area of development and job creation.
“Multiple strategies are clearly needed, and we commend Gov. Steve Beshear, Congressman Hal Rogers, Senate President Robert Stivers and House Speaker Greg Stumbo for bringing much-needed attention to the issues of Eastern Kentucky,” said Adkisson. “Clearly, economic development will require public and private strategies which can be pursued together and which can produce practical solutions. We hope our study will advance the critical dialogue that is needed to reinvigorate an important region of our Commonwealth.”
The study was overseen by the Chamber’s Eastern Kentucky Task Force, a group of Chamber members who are business leaders and natives of the region. For the purposes of the study, the Eastern Kentucky region was defined as the counties south of I-64 and west of I-75, except those in the immediate Bluegrass Region (see map).
The study is available for download at kychamber.com/ekytourism.
AECOM is a global professional services firm that works in 100 countries. The lead consultant on the Eastern Kentucky Tourism Study is Kimberly Gester from AECOM’s Chicago office. She can be reached at (312) 373-7596.
The Kentucky Chamber, headquartered in Frankfort, is the state’s largest business organization and works to “unite business and advance Kentucky.” It represents the interests of more than 90,000 employers in the state.