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One Harlan County hosts listening sessions

One Harlan County, a nonprofit organization designed to help propel business and tourism forward, hosted community listening sessions this week. The sessions were open to the general public and focused on community ideas for small businesses and tourism.

One Harlan County Executive Director Colby Kirk and SOAR Innovation Intern Daniel McConnell held several meetings in different communities around the county throughout the week.

As part of an exercise, Kirk had participants split up into different groups and write down what they thought Harlan County’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats are on a chart. When the group came back together, they discussed each section — naming what they thought were the most important things to note.

In the strengths category, community members said that the mountains and scenery is a big part of the county. At the meeting in Evarts, being able to ride ATVs legally through town was another big hit. Local restaurants, friendly atmosphere, history, close community and southern hospitality were among other strengths listed.

“Most counties don’t have what you all have as a community,” Kirk said in regards to the county’s strengths.

In the weaknesses category, natives said lack of motels, bad roads, a small airport, communication, local incentives, tourism funding, alcohol sales and advertisement for the area were to blame. They added that as the population declines, so do the sales of many small businesses.

Under opportunities, attendees said that nearly all of the region’s weaknesses could be turned around for potential improvement. A larger airport, multi-use buildings, business FAQ sheets, an incentive package for businesses, religious-oriented store, ATV rentals, guided tours, established nightlife community, strip mall, more consumer goods, a full-time garage and more indoor activities could provide the county with more tourists and business infrastructure.

When it came to the threats column, community members said one of the biggest problems in our area is that of jealous business owners. The group specifically mentioned how more established businesses in the county don’t want the competition of another potential smaller business, ultimately making it impossible to open your own business in the county.

One person in attendance said he remembers a business renting an office space in town. When the business started taking off, the owners of the space doubled the rent, putting it out of business. Other threats included access to the county, cost of doing business, too-strict regulations, jobs, property availability, coal and logging industries, the “Bloody Harlan” stigma and too many vacant properties.

During the threats discussion, Harlan Tourism’s Brandon Pennington mentioned the people who move away from the area and don’t return. He talked about how they no longer tell a story of a progressing, small town, but that they talk negatively about the area.

“Our narrative has been hijacked,” Pennington said in regards to Harlan’s rich culture. “People that moved out of Harlan tell a story of something that occurred once in their lives, not the ongoing story of this area.”

A lack of positivity about the area lends to the threats category as well, according to various community members.

After discussing each part of the county analysis, Kirk said that One Harlan County “wants to do what the community wants to do.”

“The goal of the sessions is to help connect opportunities with communities,” Kirk said. “We aim to help anyone that wants to start a business or existing businesses connect with the resources they need to expand and succeed.”

Community input was determined to be a vital part of the county’s future and its plans to succeed in business and tourism alike.

“I don’t want to write a plan if it won’t cater to the area’s needs,” Kirk said.

McConnell seconded him by adding that “community involvement is really important.”

Both Kirk and McConnell hope to help business and tourism through the ideas they received from the community throughout the week’s meetings.