Beshear unveils plans for first ‘higher ground’ community near Knott-Perry line

Daughter of the late Elmer Whitaker and her husband donate 75 acres on old mine site

BY: MCKENNA HORSLEY (Kentucky Lantern)

HINDMAN — Surrounded by elected officials from around the region, Gov. Andy Beshear on Tuesday unveiled plans to build a new community on “higher, stable ground” at a former surface coal mine near the Knott-Perry county line in Talcum. 

 The new development would be north of Hazard and Hindman near KY 80. (Map provided by governor’s office)

Speaking at the Knott County Courthouse, Beshear said the couple who are giving 75 acres for the project — Tammy and Shawn Adams — suggested naming it Olive Branch, an allusion to the biblical story of Noah’s Ark in which a dove bearing an olive branch signals the end of a devastating flood.

Massive flooding struck Eastern Kentucky last July, killing 43 and destroying hundreds of homes.

Beshear has recently emphasized the necessity of rebuilding outside flood plains to protect life and property.  

“What this is higher, stable ground where we can build neighborhoods where people never have to worry about it being flooded again,” he said. “And we can reimagine the future about where we locate schools and medical clinics, parks and other opportunities. And it’s a chance to grow.” 

The governor said work at the site will begin early next year with road building; he also said water treatment capacity must be improved. As many as 300 acres could be available for building, Beshear said but the state is waiting to see if it will need to be purchased or if the Adamses will convey more. On the initial acres, “dozens upon dozens” of homes can be built, he said. 

“What an incredible couple to give up one of the most valuable things in Eastern Kentucky, flatland, for the betterment of their brothers and sisters,” the governor said.

Tammy Adams is the daughter of the late Elmer Whitaker, who was born at a coal camp in Perry County, built a fortune as a coal operator and launched a chain of banks that bears his name. When he died in 2014, his obituary said, “In the coal business, he was mining and selling his assets each day he worked. The banks allowed him a way to invest in others and grow his assets.”

In a release from the governor’s office, Tammy Adams says, “This property means a lot to us, but what means more is that we are able to see it help so many. We are grateful to Gov. Beshear for his vision and proud that we can contribute to this project. We even have an idea for the name of the community: Olive Branch, a symbol of peace and recovery.”

Beshear said the Knott County project is the first of several communities that are part of his administration’s long-term housing plan. 

 Street scene in downtown Hindman Tuesday afternoon. (Photo for Kentucky Lantern by McKenna Horsley)

Beshear told reporters that the plan addresses the challenges of rebuilding communities outside Eastern Kentucky’s flood plains and securing flat land for housing and supporting economic development. In July, a huge rainfall over a short timeframe caused normally small creeks to swell into deadly flash floods.

The governor said building the communities will take time because “we want to build it right.” That includes improving water treatment facilities as well as building roads and utilities. 

Beshear said the state is evaluating land in Knott, Breathitt, Perry and Letcher counties, which account for about 75% of the homes lost to flood damage. 

Ideas for the first Knott County location include small, medium and large lots for homes; senior apartments, parks and recreation spaces; and possibly an elementary school. 

 Beshear has said  that his administration and others including FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, were looking at a few potential sites in counties affected by flooding. 

 Gov. Andy Beshear speaks to the media in Hindman Tuesday afternoon. (Photo for Kentucky Lantern by McKenna Horsley)

As of Dec. 9, the Commonwealth Sheltering Program was housing almost 700 Eastern Kentuckians in travel trailers in Letcher, Floyd, Pike, Knott, Breathitt, Clay and Perry counties. Then, 87 households had been transitioned out of the program and into long-term options. 

According to a release from the governor’s office:

Vector Engineering has started an initial geo-technical survey of the Knott County site, said the governor’s office. Extensive geo-technical testing will be conducted on all the potential building sites at appropriate times in the planning and construction process.

Infrastructure projects will have multiple funding streams, including Eastern Kentucky SAFE funds, state transportation funds and Federal ARPA funds. Work is expected to begin in early 2023 and will include an improved water treatment facility, roads and utilities to the area.

“The infrastructure alone will be a boost for a larger area,” said Beshear. “We are excited about the houses, schools and community centers, but people need jobs to make a community vital. And the infrastructure projects are the first steps to attracting good jobs to the area.”

Working with local nonprofit builders, affordable, energy-efficient homes will be built on the site partially funded by the Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief Fund.

“This is a model we are seeing work well in Western Kentucky. We’re on track to build hundreds of homes in the West. After a disaster, a new home provides stability, security and hope for a prosperous future. That’s what we plan to build in Eastern Kentucky, too,” said Beshear.

Rebuilding a community

Beshear said a selection process for the homes will be rolled out after infrastructure work is completed. Likely, a few organizations with different systems will be involved, such as Habitat for Humanity and FEMA. 

After almost six months since the floods, Eastern Kentuckians are still facing challenges. 

While Beshear was at the courthouse in Hindman, Kate Clemons and other volunteers were across  the street handing out meals to flood victims. He stopped by to talk with them Tuesday afternoon, she said. 

With help from different donory, Clemons, who is from Hazard, estimated that a few hundred people or so a day are fed a hot meal. She also tries to help flood victims by getting them other resources, such as heaters or gift cards to Lowe’s to repair their homes. Much of her coordination is through her personal Facebook page

As severe winter weather is anticipated over Christmas weekend, Clemons said she worries that people will freeze to death. She has heard from some residents whose HVAC systems or gas lines were washed out in the flood. 

“They don’t have anywhere to go. There’s no shelters. The hotels are full,” she said. “They don’t have money for a house.” 

Clemons said she was appreciative of Beshear and the announcement of the community, but she wanted to highlight the immediate needs. 

“They’ll have to spend money developing. I don’t know how long that will take but I am just so thankful that Andy truly cares enough that he kept his word to help us with the housing.”

On Main Street, the Appalachian School of Luthiery and Troublesome Creek Stringed Instrument Co. began sharing a building after the flood. The company is a nonprofit organization that maintains the school. 

Doug Naselroad, the director of the instrument company, said the school’s building up the street and the company’s factory along the creek were both destroyed during the floods. 

“This is a building that was eight feet underwater and it’s been restored,” Naselroad said “The machinery has been replaced or refurbished and we’re ordering more.” The school will likely remain in the building, but the company intends to rebuild its factory though it will take time, he added. 

When it comes to asking why Appalachians stay in their community, Naselroad said there’s a better question: Why leave? 

“If you want to define who an Appalachian person is, it’s a person who never got beat out,” Naselroad said.

MCKENNA HORSLEY covers state politics for the Kentucky Lantern. She previously worked for newspapers in Huntington, West Virginia, and Frankfort, Kentucky. She is from northeastern Kentucky.

Top photo:  Land donated near the Knott-Perry county line for a new community announced Tuesday by Gov. Andy Beshear. (Photo provided by the governor’s office)

Republished with permission from Kentucky Lantern under Creative Commons 4.0 License.