One Election Away?: An Appalachian Kentucky Town's Struggle to Diversify its Economy After Coal

This paper critically assess the results of university-community engagement efforts in Elkhorn City, a small eastern Kentucky town that has been seeking to diversify its economy by adding adventure tourism. We examine the products of this community partnership with the University of Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky University as well as their accomplishments with other partners in an attempt to assess what types of relationships have been most helpful in achieving local goals. We found that, regardless of type of extra-community partner, the intra-community dynamics and, in particular, local government leaders’ attitudes toward adventure tourism, appear to be the most crucial factor in determining whether this path is followed. We further argue that coal “corporate capture” (Tarus, Hufford, and Taylor 2017) of elected officials prevents their acknowledgement of the potential of adventure tourism to diversify the community’s economy and contribute to the quality of life in the region even in the face of empirical evidence and expert analysis. This case study points to the limitations of university-community partnerships and raises concerns about the dysyr of democracy in a society whose leadership, from the local to the national levels, declines to base policy decisions on evidence.