On Sept. 7, Gov. Matt Bevin joined Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers, Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet (EEC) Secretary Charles Snavely and other state and local officials in Eastern Kentucky to celebrate more than $5 million in funding for three economic development projects in Perry, Knott and Breathitt counties.

According to a statement, the AML Pilot Program, funded through OSMRE, is a program administered by the Energy and Environment Cabinet’s Division of Abandoned Mine Lands with assistance from the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, the Department for Local Government and the SOAR Initiative in Eastern Kentucky. The projects were first unveiled Friday at the SOAR Summit in Pikeville, and were selected for grants to help revitalize the coalfields in Kentucky’s Appalachian region, the statement said.

“I am pleased to join Congressman Rogers today in announcing more than $5 million for three important economic development projects in Eastern Kentucky,” Bevin said. “These AML Pilot Program investments will provide significant enhancements to Knott/Perry County’s cutting-edge USA Drone Port, Knott County’s exciting Mine Made Adventure Park and Breathitt County’s scenic South Fork Elk View Campground. We are grateful to Congressman Rogers, who is a strong partner in bringing vital jobs, economic opportunity and tourism development to our Appalachian region,” said Gov. Bevin.

Congressman Rogers, who, according to a statement, alongside U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell championed the AML Pilot Program and secured $105 million in federal funding for Kentucky since 2016,  said the funding is a great way to ensure each county gets the assistance needed in the appropriate areas to best improve them.

“The AML Pilot Program allows us to focus funding where it’s needed the most in each county, to address pressing needs for infrastructure improvements, tourism enhancements, workforce training and the like. We are revitalizing Southern and Eastern Kentucky from every corner to create more jobs and a brighter future in our region,” said Rogers.

The USA Drone Port in Perry and Knott counties was selected to receive a $1.5 million 2018 AML Pilot grant to construct a cutting-edge, indoor drone flight-testing facility, along with peripheral infrastructure.

The 20,000-square-foot facility will enable all-weather drone research and development and make available drone testing 24 hours a day to private industry, government and educational institutions. The grant has been submitted to the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) for approval.The USA Drone Port also has been selected to receive a $743,000 2019 AML Pilot grant to extend its sewer collection system while adding water service to the site.

“What this will do is allow us to build an indoor testing facility to where we can test year-round,” said Perry County Judge-Executive Scott Alexander. “For the first time, our airspace and being in rural Kentucky are critical in being in a new, evolving industry such as the drones, so we’re leveraging what we have to take our terrain and our airspace to mark it to the world.

“We already have people from around the world interested in coming here, so it is an exciting time. We’re leading the way. We’re not reacting to a new industry, we’re actually leading ahead of a new industry. We’re very excited and very pleased that we’re going to get to continue the expansion of the Drone Port,” Alexander said.

Two other projects were selected to receive funds from the 2019 AML Pilot program.

Mine Made Adventures in Knott County was selected to receive $1.5 million to expand and develop the park. This project will include campground sites, cabins and a multi-use building. The newly developed park will serve as a trail head for hundreds of miles of interconnected, multi-purpose trails.The other project was the South Fork Elk View Campground in Breathitt County, which was selected to receive $1.345 million to continue the development of the campground. The area will include cabins, primitive tent sites, RV hook-ups, on-site utilities, landscaping, a camp store, bath house, vehicle wash station and a playground.

“This allows counties like Knott and Breathitt Counties that are in the process of establishing a trail system in each of those counties to really advance the ball down the field,” said  Jerry Stacy, who serves as the Perry County Emergency Management Director and as the Kentucky Mountain Regional Recreation Authority president. The authority governs trails in 35 counties. “This will really improve the infrastructure and the things they need at these trail heads to really attract people to these areas.

Perry County officials said even though those two projects are in surrounding counties, they believe it will benefit Perry County as well, due to the potential of incoming tourism funding that could help the area tremendously.

“Establishing these trails in Eastern Kentucky will have a world of potential. We have some wonderful things to offer here that when you’re outside of Kentucky you just don’t realize,” said Stacy, explaining that the scenic views, wonderful colors in fall and large elk herds are just a few of the crowd-drawing features of the area. “There’s a lot to offer here, just thousands of miles of ATV trails that are just waiting to be used.

“This has the potential of not fixing our economy but definitely being a piece to the puzzle as far as the amount of tourism money that this has to potentially bring in,” said Stacy. In eight counties in West Virginia last year, Stacy said, more than $22.5 million went into those counties, and they earned over two million dollars in permit sales just last year.

“We’ve got more to offer here than they do in West Virginia,” Stacy said. “The type of terrain that we have is so much more suited for this than anywhere you can go around. The potential of tourism dollars coming into eastern Kentucky, we’ve only scratched the surface.”

“Our main focus is on jobs and job creation. We’ve got to create a tax base in order to sustain and grow going forward but part of creating jobs and economic growth is we have to also create recreation and opportunities for people working here and also for people for tourism to come here,” said Alexander. “We think they (the trails) are going to play an amazing role.”

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