• 2 ex-mining towns try to change their fortunes
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     | August 27,2014
     
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    Rocky Top Tenn. was formerly known as Lake City, Tenn. The city council voted in June to change the name in order to associate itself with the bluegrass song that declares, “Rocky Top, you’ll always be home, sweet home, to me. Good ol’ Rocky Top. Rocky Top, Tennessee.”

    ROCKY TOP, Tenn. — In the Appalachian foothills of eastern Tennessee, Rocky Top and Briceville share a common heritage and a common problem: How to revive communities that once boasted bustling main streets and jobs for nearly anyone willing to mine the coal once plentiful in the deep shafts underground.

    Briceville has embraced the long-range vision of a nonprofit group offering college scholarships to people who are often first in their families to go beyond high school.

    About five miles away, the town recently known as Lake City decided to change its name to Rocky Top. It is banking on the quick-strike dreams of developers promising a multimillion-dollar tourist complex built around the popular bluegrass song, that declares, “Rocky Top, you’ll always be home, sweet home, to me. Good ol’ Rocky Top. Rocky Top, Tennessee.”

    The contrasting paths reflect more than divergent ideas. They dig deep into the increasing desperation of places across Appalachia mired in poverty and decline and receptive to any kind of help to reinvent themselves.

    “Like most, or all, Appalachian coal mining towns, there are a whole lot of people out of work and uneducated,” said Stephanie Bohon, co-director of the Center for the Study of Social Justice at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

    Rocky Top and Briceville lie along Coal Creek, about 20 miles north of the nuclear engineers and supercomputers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, but a world away. The creek carves out a narrow valley in the hills, trickling past forests that have swallowed up abandoned coal mines.

    It passes the graves of 32 never-identified miners, killed in an explosion more than a century ago. And it passes small homes that cling to the hillsides in communities like Briceville, where descendants of coal miners still live.

    Briceville, population about 500, recently lost its only store. And only a few businesses hang on in the downtown Rocky Top, home to about 1,800. There’s little anyone can do to stop the exodus of those seeking a paycheck.

    Briceville’s opportunity came indirectly. Barry Thacker, a Knoxville coal mining engineer, showed up in 2000 with an idea to help improve water quality in Coal Creek and was met with a protest.

    “About 40 of them had signs telling me how stupid I was to be worrying about fish when I should be worrying about people,” Thacker said. “And you know what? They were right.”

    He listened to their concerns about the lack of health care, jobs and opportunities for their children. The result was Thacker’s Coal Creek Watershed Foundation, which has helped fund college education for three dozen Briceville students. So far, the foundation has spent $265,000 and committed $46,000 more to current students.

    Starting in elementary school, the foundation sponsors field trips and brings in college students and professionals to teach children about their history, culture and the environment. It also sponsors watershed clean-ups and other community service projects. Students who participate earn the opportunity to apply for scholarships if they agree to return to mentor younger children.

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