It is starting out to be a happy new year in Pikeville, Kentucky. Little in technology is more “cutting edge” today that lithium battery manufacturing. Elon Musk last year chose Nevada, not California for his mega plant a few years ago. Now, lithium battery manufacturer Ener Blu has announced plans to move, “lock stock and barrel” from Riverside-San Bernardino, east of Los Angeles, to Appalachian Kentucky, with its plant to be located in Pikeville, to be built on a what was a surface coal mine. Plans are to create 875 manufacturing jobs. Ener Blue also will move its headquarters in Lexington, Kentucky’s second largest metropolitan area and the home of the University of Kentucky.
Pikeville: A Unique Move
This could be a very significant move. On the surface, it looks fundamentally different from the many corporate moves that have left high-cost California behind as companies seek the greener pastures of lower taxes, less regulation and lower costs of living (driven largely by better housing affordability) in their efforts to recruit talented staff. The most significant examples are Japanese car manufacturers that have moved their US headquarters to Dallas-Fort Worth and Nashville, which have become major metropolitan areas capable of competing for just about any company looking to move, not to mention households seeking better opportunities as well as urban amenities at an affordable price.
But Pikeville is no Dallas-Fort Worth or Nashville. It is not even a micropolitan area, much less a metropolitan area. The city (municipality) had a population of under 7,100 in 2016, up just 200 from the 2010 census. Pikeville is the county seat of Pike County, which has a population of 61,000, down from 65,000 in 2010.
Pike County is at the core of one of America’s poorest regions, the Appalachians. Pike County’s economy has long been dependent on coal and even before recent setbacks, Appalachian coal regions have had more than their share of poverty. The recent declines in coal employment have been legendary. Eastern Kentucky has been particularly hard hit. In the last six years, nearly 75 percent of its coal jobs have been lost.
The latest data from the Appalachian Commission shows Pike County to have a poverty rate of 22.9 percent, 48 percent above the national poverty rate. Its poverty rate is more than double the overall poverty rate for the entire Appalachian region, which stretches from Upstate New York to Mississippi. The median household income is approximately 40 percent below the national figure.
But not all see Pikeville as a place without a future. This would include prolific demographer Lyman Stone, who wrote more than one year ago about the progress that has been made in Pikeville, even as the rural and coal economy surrounding it declines. Pikeville has been rejuvenated by the expansion of its small university, the University of Pikeville, which has more than doubled its enrollment over the past two decades. Stone anticipates continued growth.
Moreover, there is more good news for Eastern Kentucky than just Pikeville. Braidy Industries has embarked on a project to build the first new aluminum plant in the United States in 30 years in Greenup County, on the south bank of the Ohio River west of Huntington, West Virginia. After the plant opens there are plans for more than 500 full time employees.
The tendency over the past few decades has been for the US to shed its manufacturing functions to lower cost venues overseas. At the same time, many areas have been left behind. As the cost of living differences expand between the more expensive metropolitan areas and the rest of the United States, it may be that US corporate interests, and others, will identify opportunities for profitable operation, while at the same time rejuvenating places that have been left behind, like Pikeville and Greenup County.
Meanwhile, back in Pikeville, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, Congressman Hal Rogers and Pikeville state Senator Ray Jones II, were present for Ener Blu’s Pikeville announcement. The Governor, according to U.S. News and World Report predicted that the company’s arrival would transform an area where the coal jobs have disappeared. Congressman Rogers added “this is where we’ve got a lot of workers needing work that are … capable, ready to go,” An elated Mayor Jimmy Carter referred to the development as revolutionary “for the city of Pikeville and all of Eastern Kentucky,”
Jones, the Democratic Kentucky Senate minority leader, acknowledged partisan differences with Republican Governor Matt Bevin, but added that he has nothing but praise for the Governor’s efforts to revitalize eastern Kentucky. He added that, first the Greenup County Braidy announcement and now Ener Blu are two of the most positive economic news in this state in many years.
The Beginning of a Trend?
The real question is whether Pikeville and Greenup County are just blips in the continuing decline of small town America. There are many more small towns that have been left behind in the changing economy. Indeed, there is a broad view that small towns have little or no future, the theme of a New Year’s Day Wall Street Journal feature, “The Divide Between America’s Prosperous Cities and Struggling Small Towns.” Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman even wonders if there is a future for some major metropolitan areas, such as Rochester, New York.
Yet the developments in Eastern Kentucky suggest the potential for an alternate narrative. Greenup County could indicate a revived potential for traditional manufacturing even in the post-industrial age. Pikeville could indicate the potential for “cutting edge” technology to find a home in small towns. Many small towns may not die at all, as they are rejuvenated by public policies in places like California, where the cost of living and cost of doing business has increased by such a degree so that even the most advanced industries seek other venues.