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If you haven’t been to Pikeville, Kentucky, lately, then you may be shocked to discover what you’d find should you make the journey.
Far from being the typical central-Appalachian ghost town, with abandoned businesses and an out of work populace, Kentucky’s most eastern county-seat is a thriving and progressive community that boasts of more than 1,400 businesses and serves as a leading financial, industrial and retail marketplace for the Appalachian region.
Established in 1824, the City of Pikeville has long stood out among many of its neighbors in the tri-state region which encompasses the counties of Pike, Mingo (WV), and Buchanan (VA), serving as the hub for progress and development.
Like most of the towns and population centers within a hundred-mile radius, Pikeville has long been reliant upon the coal industry as its major source of income; however, this is where many of the similarities come to an abrupt halt.
Today, with what local residents angrily decry as a “war on coal,” the economies of the small towns throughout the region stand in freefall, suffering the plagues of the infamous “Dutch Disease,” while Pikeville enjoys the distinction of being known as a flourishing center for commerce — a lush oasis in a desert of decay.
The people of this Tri-State region are one of the nation’s hardest working and most resourceful, boasting of a proud history which predates the flags of the state governments they so proudly fly in their front yards – yet as anyone will tell you, local pride is not enough to pull a community out of poverty. A move such as this requires forethought, ingenuity and the backing of multiple players – and over the past forty-years Pikeville has enjoyed the perfect storm of each of these blessings.
Recognizing the dangers of having “all the eggs in one basket,” a term we at Appalachian Magazine use quite often in speaking about community development, Pikeville city leaders sought to diversify their economy by marketing the community as the center for business, finance and education.
Pikeville’s rise to the top began in the 1990s, but can be traced to large-scale capital improvement projects which date back to the midway point of the previous century.
The city’s crowning project is undeniably the “Pikeville Cut Through,” a fourteen year project responsible for literally moving the Levisa Fork River, a waterway that had been notorious for flooding the city on a near-annual basis.
In total, the project required the moving of nearly 18-million cubic yards of soil and rock, with construction spanning the years 1973 to 1987.
Since completion of the civil engineering project which rivaled the construction of the Hoover Dam, the city has experienced a rapid period of economic development which has yet to show any signs of dimming.
In 1997, Pikeville College (which later became Pikeville University) opened the Kentucky College of Osteopathic Medicine and is now in the process of preparing to open its school of optometry, the first in Central Appalachia.
The medical school has had a profound impact on the level of medical care local citizens now receive, as the Pikeville Medical Center has established itself as a regional healthcare center.
More recently, a new 11-story clinic and a 10-story parking structure was completed at a cost of $150 million. The hospital is now a proud member of the Mayo Clinic Care Network.
In October 2005, the 7,000 seat, multi-purpose Eastern Kentucky Exposition Center opened in downtown.
This past October, the Pikeville Commons, a massive outdoor shopping center which also includes apartment space, opened its doors. Marketers of the Commons brag that residents will be within “an easy walk to boutiques, markets, shops and restaurants,” stating that the facility will provide “a true lifestyle of convenience outside your door.”
With all of the bad news which seems to plague the mountains of Appalachia, Pikeville offers both hope to the communities around it, as well as a proven model for success – diversification of economy, foresight and honest government.
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