PIKEVILLE — Leaders grappling with a painful downturn in coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky got a primer Monday on how another state dealt with a similar collapse in its mining region.
The situation 30 years ago in the iron-ore belt in northeastern Minnesota was dire. Mining jobs dropped by more than 60 percent in 18 months and people started moving out, at times stopping by the bank on the way out of town to drop off keys to houses and cars they couldn’t pay for, said Joe Sertich, a former community-college president in the region known as the Iron Range.
The Eastern Kentucky coalfield has been similarly battered by layoffs. The coal industry has cut 6,000 jobs since mid-2011, with some counties losing more than half the jobs that were once the bulwark of their economy.
Sertich spoke Monday at a daylong summit in Pikeville called Shaping Our Appalachia Region, or SOAR. U.S. Rep Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, and Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, set up the summit to generate ideas to diversify the economy of Eastern Kentucky.
About 1,700 people registered for the summit at the Eastern Kentucky Exposition Center — evidence, Beshear said, of the tremendous interest in trying to find some way to revitalize the regional economy.
“The situation has reached a critical point,” Beshear said in opening the meeting.
The Iron Range had some things in place to deal with its downturn that Eastern Kentucky doesn’t, however.
One was the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, which is headed by Sertich’s son, Tony, a former Minnesota state lawmaker who also spoke at Monday’s development summit.
The state had set the board up in the 1940s to promote investment and workforce development in its iron-ore region, so when the industry shriveled there was a panel in place to help guide a response.
The panel paid for short-term public-works projects to cushion the blow of mining losses — helping stem the population loss — then invested in longer-range efforts to attract new businesses and boost tourism and other sectors, Tony Sertich said.
Planners also brought better coordination to community colleges in the region and put more focus on technical education and training.
Sertich said the long-term effort has been successful. The unemployment rate in the region is about 6 percent, and there has been nearly $500 million in public and private investment in the region since 2010, which is projected to create more than 4,100 jobs, he said.
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