Ryan Adams

“When you interact with the people, and you spend some time here, you learn that just because you don’t have something, doesn’t mean you can’t have something or you shouldn’t have something. Given the opportunity, the people of this region can achieve any goal any other region of the world can achieve. It’s just the obstacle of being here and overcoming that geographical obstacle.”

Ryan Adams, Assignment Editor/Producer, WYMT Television; Jeremiah, KY (Letcher County):

“Growing up in Eastern Kentucky was special for me. It was a place where I developed a very small network of friends that I’m still very close with today. I came from a family that wasn’t wealthy by any means, but we weren’t as bad off as some other people may have been. I graduated in ‘93. It was an interesting time. Going through school, up until early high school, I didn’t know what a cell phone was. And now, Eastern Kentucky is still adapting and finally getting decent cell phone coverage. It’s not here yet, but we’ve made great strides in that. 
Growing up in Eastern Kentucky was special.

Honestly, I watched a lot of television. In fact, as a child, I had my mother--I think it was ‘83 or ‘85, whenever WYMT first came on the air--I had her get up and record their first broadcast, which I still have on a VHS tape somewhere at home. I’m a big news junkie.

My dad was a coal broker for a company called Westmoreland Coal Company until the mid-80s. A coal broker is basically someone who buys and sells coal from one person to the other. It’s kind of like a stockbroker in a sense. You find a good bargain on coal and then you resell it to someone else and make a profit on it. [Westmoreland went] bankrupt and a couple of years before he was supposed to retire, he was laid off. He’s had some medical issues and has been disabled for quite a while. 

My mother, she was a cosmetologist early in life, and then she’s done various housekeeping jobs since then. They both stay at home now and are both retired. My grandmother was a Headstart bus driver for 30-something years. My grandfather was gone before I can have a memory of him. I was lucky enough to live within walking distance of my grandmother’s house throughout my childhood, and that allowed me to create memories that I’ll never forget. She passed away several years ago from lung cancer.

[In high school], I didn’t participate in any type of sports, which I kind of regret. I wish I would have played basketball. I was in band for a while. I wasn’t that great of a student. I learned later in life why paying attention in high school is important because it does kind of set your pace for later in life. I went on and finished two years of college. I’m still hoping to finish my Bachelor’s degree. I’m not there yet, but I’ve been fortunate enough to have several pretty good jobs, which is rare here. Good jobs are hard to find in Eastern Kentucky. 

Right out of high school I went to work for a mental health agency for a short time, and then I moved to Lexington in ‘94. I was there for about nine and a half years. While in Lexington, I worked for a call center, and I worked for Lexington Center Rupp Arena as a part-time security officer, which I still do today. I moved back home when a company called Sykes Enterprises first opened, which is another call center. I was hired in as the training manager and then was an assistant call center director for a couple years there. Then, I accepted a job with the Kentucky State Police. I had worked in state government for about 13 years, and after you work as a dispatcher for a while, it takes a certain breed of person to do that and not really have the stress affect you. After a while, it just got to where it was time for me to make a career change. I couldn’t see myself sitting behind a desk talking on the telephone for another 15 - 20 years.

Now, I am the assignment editor and a producer for WYMT Television, the CBS affiliate in Hazard. Interesting thing about that, in high school, I volunteered there as a high school intern, and I didn’t pursue a degree in that for various reasons, but I would never have imagined that so many years later, I’m right back where it all started. News television broadcasting is something I’ve always enjoyed and an opportunity came that I couldn’t really pass up, and I took it, and I’ve not been happier. 

[When I moved away] the thing I noticed different about Lexington was here, I might have 20 close friends; there, in Lexington, I might have three close friends. Your network is smaller just because life is busier, and Eastern Kentucky is special for me because of the laid back lifestyle and the ability to get to know more than two or three people. It’s a pretty special place.

I lived in Lexington and I’ve also traveled all over the country. The one thing about Eastern Kentucky is the people: the friendliness and the willingness to help each other, and the willingness to reach out make a new friend. It’s something that you won’t find in Lexington. I spent some time in San Francisco. There, you don’t talk to anybody when you walk down the street. If someone speaks to you, you think they want something from you. It’s just a different pace of life. It’s not that they’re bad people, it’s just a different culture.

I can remember driving down the parkway when you get to Campton, there’s a sign that says ‘Hazard/Whitesburg Exit’. It’s an hour and a half from Whitesburg, but just knowing I was that close meant I was home. It’s kind of ironic that the closer you get to Eastern Kentucky, the more in despair the road infrastructure becomes, but the closer I get, the more at home I feel.

I don’t think coal will come back, and there’s not one factor that’s the reason for that. You can blame the government if it makes you feel better, but that’s not the reason. It’s a whole list of global reasons why that is happening. 

The interesting thing about particularly what’s going in Whitesburg right now...if you go across Eastern Kentucky, you go to Hyden, you go to Hindman, you’re going to find downtowns that are empty buildings and open storefronts. In Whitesburg, in the last two months, there’s been three businesses opened, all of which are owned by local people, most of which are people that have reinvested in this town with their own money, and they’ve found ways to make it. 

Heritage Kitchen is a restaurant that just opened just down the street [by] a gentleman that I went to high school with that lived in Lexington. When he had an opportunity to come home, he came back, and he opened his own business and he’s contributing to the local economy. There’s a record shop and there’s two tattoo shops, one of which is of interest to me because the gentleman, John Haywood, a local artist, is such a interesting character, as is his wife. Both have degrees in their profession, and they’re really talented people.

I remember growing up in Whitesburg, there was a department store downtown and a couple of other businesses, but as time passed there was more and more empty storefronts. Then, all of a sudden, it started with a business called Summit City Coffee was the original name, it’s now Summit City Lounge. A man named Joel Beverly took the initial step to invest in downtown Whitesburg. He purchased a building for pennies on the dollar [and] put in a coffee shop, which is now a bar. That created an opportunity for other people to see that it could be done. 

A short time later, there was a petition to have restaurant-only alcohol sales in Whitesburg. Before that happened, they were having music shows at Summit City. The first show they had was a man named Jason Isbell. He performed in a place where you could only drink coffee, and there were people lined out the door and standing on the street to see him. Now, he just headlined a show last week in Nashville with Chris Stapleton. He’s very successful, a national name. Dozens of national names have come through Summit City, and it’s really amazing. 

Shortly after they opened, StreetSide Bar and Grill came into town. And then the tattoo shop came. And now there’s The Thirsty Heifer restaurant and Heritage Kitchen and the Kentucky Mist moonshine distillery. Every couple of months, there’s something else coming to Whitesburg, and the reason for that is the local government, the mayor, the city council, embraced these businesses, they helped them in many different ways. The thing about Whitesburg is [it’s] an example of something that’s going on right now. 

Tyler Ward at The Thirsty Heifer had an employee shortage this weekend. He goes to Heritage Kitchen, and they let him borrow a couple of their employees to work this weekend. You won’t find that in many other places. Last night was the first night that Heritage Kitchen had alcohol sales. Tyler Ward, who owns The Thirsty Heifer restaurant made sure he went to the Heritage Kitchen just to drink a beer on their first night, just to support them. And that’s just kind of cool, I mean, there’s just no other way to describe it. 

There’s a ton of different projects underway in Whitesburg. They’re making a trail off of the Appalachian Trail that will come down into Whitesburg so that if you need to walk off you can actually walk down the trail and get into town. It’s going to involve possibly redesigning the whole downtown and making it a lot prettier, but that’s a long way off, but they’re just so many things happening. [The Appalachian Trail] is just at the top of Pine Mountain, a couple miles away. 

Summit City did announce that they were planning on closing once, and the outpouring of support from the people of this town was really amazing. We started talk about ways that we could save Summit City. We started a Facebook page called ‘Save Summit City’. It grew into thousands of people, almost a thousand people that were lobbying for it, and in part because of that movement and the outpouring of support from people in the community, it spurred the idea to change the alcohol ordinance in town to better accommodate it. Shortly after that they had a special election and voted legal alcohol sales, not just restaurant-only, but everything, and that in part solved that legal quagmire they had as to why they might have to close. 

That election happened in Whitesburg because there were a lot of people thinking outside the box. There were people here that knew that Whitesburg could be something special. Whitesburg could be a tourist destination if something happened that was a little different than what was done before. Would that election pass county-wide? Absolutely not. But in Whitesburg it did, and it’s been a tremendous success for so many different businesses. There was opposition--very well defined opposition, but it wasn’t as loud and wasn’t as prevalent as I would have expected. 

I’ve experienced [stereotyping] a lot. An interesting thing happens in Whitesburg. There are a lot of people from outside the region that come to Whitesburg for various reasons, partly because Appalshop brings in a lot of people. They all leave with a different interpretation of what Eastern Kentucky is. When you interact with the people, and you spend some time here, you learn that just because you don’t have something, doesn’t mean you can’t have something or you shouldn’t have something. Given the opportunity, the people of this region can achieve any goal any other region of the world can achieve. It’s just the obstacle of being here and overcoming that geographical obstacle. It’s the infrastructure, and it all plays into geography. It’s more difficult to put in roads here. It’s more difficult to put in decent cell phone service here because there’s just not as many people here.

Appalshop has been a blessing to this area, particularly to Whitesburg. There are people who are strongly opposed to them, and those are also the people who probably don’t have a full understanding of what they contribute to the area. Tonight, there was a man from Czechoslovakia in this building who spent money in Whitesburg, and that was, in part, because of Appalshop.

People are slowly beginning to embrace the area, slowly beginning to realize we aren’t all a bunch of backwoods hillbillies; that we can achieve any goal that we put in front of us. There have been people from this very town that have gone on to do phenomenal things in life. Once you overcome the belief that because you’re from Eastern Kentucky or Southwest Virginia or East Tennessee, or West Virginia that you’re inferior, and you get passed that, people are more accepting. 

There is a stigma to being a hillbilly. I guess part of it is because of Hollywood; part of it is because of history books.

I see this region still being somewhat fragmented. Just because Pikeville has something, that doesn’t mean that Hazard will ever have it, that doesn’t mean that those two cities will ever work together. I think there is still a ‘us against them’ mentality versus Whitesburg to another city, or Hazard to another city. It would be great to overcome that, but I don’t know if that will ever fully be because ambitions have been withheld from Eastern Kentucky for so long that that ‘us against them’ is kind of beaten into every politician in the area. 

I think there’s probably not a more romantic place in the world than Appalachia. Where else can you go and drive a mile up the road and be on the top of Pine Mountain watching the sunset. You can drive on the top of Pine Mountain and watch the sunrise. There are so many ways to get away from the stressors of life in Eastern Kentucky. [You] can be in Lexington and drive all 19 miles around New Circle Road and still be in the ninth circle of Hell. But I can find ways to get away from it here. 

Appalachia is a true hidden treasure in this world. There isn’t another place I have been to where the people are more hospitable; there isn’t another place where the people are more embracing and willing to help their neighbor. When I lived in Lexington, I didn’t know who my neighbor was, and it was just an apartment, and there was just a wall between us. I never saw them. Here, there might be a mile between us, but I know exactly where they are, and who they are, and that’s not because I’m particularly nosy, it’s just because here you have time to get to know everybody.

There is a deeply rooted connection between Appalachian people and the land. There have probably been more people killed over property disputes in this area than any other reason. Land is more valuable than money here particularly to some elderly people. It’s something that you get as inheritance, it’s not something that most people here have been able to buy. It’s something that’s someone else’s owned and passed down to you, and it’s extremely valuable. It becomes a personal issue for people; my grandmother had this, now I have it; her mother had it before she did, it’s always been in our family possession. 

I remember not that long ago, it was mid-90s, at the time I was working at the sheriff's department as a dispatcher. I took a call one day from a man who was having a property dispute with his brother. It was over access to a storage building. We told him he’d have to contact the county attorney because it was a property dispute. That didn’t settle very well with him, and in about an hour, he killed his brother and two or three other people over a storage building. That’s how important property is here. It’s a life or death thing for many people. 

Shaping Our Appalachian Region [SOAR] is a wonderful idea. I hope that SOAR achieves every one of its goals. It’s a hodgepodge of ideas from different groups that have contributed, and SOAR has embraced all of them and has great ambitions. Whether or not they will be achieved, it’s hard to say. I’m pretty skeptical to be honest with you. Whitesburg is very grassroots, and it’s very different from many other areas. There’s a general belief among most people here that politicians from outside the local level are a bit disingenuous when they get to start talking about wanting to help Eastern Kentucky. There’s a long documented history of people really not helping Eastern Kentucky. Carl D. Perkins, used to say in campaigns that he gave Eastern Kentucky welfare, and he can take it away, and he got reelected for a very long time just because of that one issue.

The iWAY is a great idea, but it’s going to cost a ton of money to get going. I don’t know how an infrastructure of communication in Eastern Kentucky could work consistently. It hasn’t so far. It’s okay now, but it could certainly be improved, and I hope it does. I’m by no means an IT expert, but I’m just personally very skeptical.

The importance of developing [high-speed fiber optic cable internet access] to this region is extremely important. If the cell phone infrastructure was improved, if the broadband infrastructure was improved, it would enable some of these vacant buildings to become another Google [or] Facebook, and all of those companies. There’s a lady from Whitesburg who is a Google executive now. She has a lot of great ideas that would work here if the infrastructure were better. 

(How can Eastern Kentucky become progressive again without the money from the coal companies?) It’s going to require state legislators, federal lawmakers, local mayors, county judge executives thinking outside the box. In part, doing what has already happened in Whitesburg and proving that it can happen in Whitesburg. A guy that’s a contract coal company owner puts in a moonshine distillery. A man who is a biological engineer puts in a lounge and bar. There’s just all kinds of people thinking outside the box, and that’s the idea that you’re going to have to have everywhere to make Eastern Kentucky different, to make Eastern Kentucky something besides abandoned coal towns. 

There’s a ton of people here with a tremendous work ethic. You will not find any better anywhere in the world if they were just given a chance to do something different. Coal companies have done a lot to make coal miners the best miners they can. When the mines go away, not many of them have stepped up and offered them training for anything else. These people are willing to learn. The community college in Hazard has a lineman program where they’re teaching out-of-work coal miners to be linemen for the phone company, power company, or whatever, and it turns into a very good career for these folks.

Appalachia needs someone with sincerity, someone with passion, someone that can look to every town in this region from Ashland to Somerset and have an idea that everyone can embrace, so yes, they do need a Martin Luther King.”