HARLAN, Ky. — Eastern Kentucky may not be at the top of your travel destinations this summer, but a group of entrepreneurs, developers and investors are hoping to flip the script on making one Kentucky town a must-see stop.
Harlan, or 'Bloody Harlan' as it was known for the strife between coal companies and its miners over the years, is the site of a revitalization project. It's spearheaded by developer Gill Holland, best known for his success in bringing the NuLu area in Louisville back to life.
“Harlan County built the city of Louisville, Harlan County built the United States of America if you think about the amount of coal that came out of this county," Holland said. “Cities can’t exist without rural communities and rural communities can’t exist without cities as well."
Now, Holland and his entrepreneurial partner Geoff Marietta, who owns Moonbow Tipple Coffee Shop in town, are trying to build up Harlan.
Bridging that divide between rural and urban is part of an effort to bring people back to Harlan and the surrounding eastern Kentucky towns that have been slowly declining for decades.
“Inequality is terrible and it’s worsening and one of the big issues is that people in rural America have largely been left behind," Marietta said.
That endeavor begins with reinventing the main streets of Harlan, attracting local businesses like coffee shops and boutiques.
Holland and his team are now opening Harlan Co. Brewing Company, the first microbrewery for nearly 100 miles, just as the town voted to allow liquor.
“I always say in neighborhood revitalization the coffee shop is the first thing and the microbrewery is the second thing," Holland said.
They believe Harlan has great potential to bring tourism back to the Appalachia area. That's part of the reason why Marietta and his wife, Sky, moved there after living in Boston for 11 years.
"So often when we’re thinking about rural communities, we’re thinking of extraction, taking things out, that’s how you build a community," Sky said. "The big thing here is importing people."
This resurgence in the area has brought a collective optimism among fellow local business owners and having the Appalachian Mountains as the backdrop is an added bonus for people to come visit.
“We believe that Harlan has so much potential that we’re willing to invest all that we have to make it a go," said April Collins, owner of Sassy Trash.
As Holland and his team continue to do the work in bridging that gap, his selling point is a simple one.
“Come for the beer and stay for the mountains,” Holland said.