The ReSET - Coal In Their Stockings

12/18/17

Newt Fowler

There are a lot of cultures in crisis. They span from highly visible inner cities like Baltimore to the hidden hollers of Appalachia, from rust belt communities to farm towns. Every community knows their future lies in a globalizing knowledge economy. Most are paralyzed, watching their youthful brains drain elsewhere or losing them to drugs and crime. For those that have read Hillbilly Elegy and felt that J.D. Vance left one at a loss for how one such community– Appalachian America – can recover, there are places some have given up on that are owning their future.

One such place is among the hollers of my Kentucky home. Back in the ‘70s, Seminary professors like my Dad were given the Sunday pulpit in struggling churches scattered among the Bluegrass State’s 120 counties. Some of these churches were in places like Pikesville, Kentucky. I would ride shotgun and when we arrived, I would sit in the last pew. Dad would always say that you could tell the health of a church, and today I realize, the health of a community, by how many young were in the pews. If the church’s parishioners were all over 50, Dad said the place was already dead; they just didn’t know it.

Which gets me to what’s going on today in Pikesville. Pike County is the heart of coal country. And notwithstanding proclamations by the New Administration that coal is back – residents know that they will never see miners filling hoppers as in the past. Bit Source, a Pikesville based software developer, figured out that it could teach coal miners how to code, moving past the basics of html and JavaScript to Drupal and Units. Sure, you can hand wring about losing the next generation to communities that hold greater promise, but companies like Bit Source are figuring out how to put committed, invested, driven residents back to work at a living wage. “Coal to Code” they call it. Not only can a guy who rarely saw the light of day in his last job find meaning in his new work, even Fortune 500 companies are returning with new projects to a team they can count on.

As J.D. Vance acknowledges, there is always a tug to what is home, something that tethers each of us with our past, and serves as a touchstone, whether welcomed or not, reminding us of who we are. The holidays often leave us with a sense of how far we think we have traveled; on reflection, we know the distance in our souls from whence we came is quite short. When I would slip into that last pew and as my Dad would be greeted by the elders of the community and walked to the pulpit, heads would turn back to look at his 13-year-old son. While I am a Kentuckian, I knew from those glances, then and now, that those of us from the Bluegrass region and those from the hollers are different folk from different places – not better or worse, just different. Yet no matter the differences, we all deserve a shot at a purposeful future in these times of change, one like Bit Source offers the miners in Pikesville. Merry Christmas, Dad. Thanks for those Sunday rides.

With more than 30 years’ experience in law and business, Newt Fowler, a partner in Womble Bond Dickinson’s business practice, advises many investors, entrepreneurs and technology companies, guiding them through all aspects of business planning, financing transactions, technology commercialization and M&A. He’s the pastboard chair of TEDCO and serves on the Board of the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore. Newt can be reached at newt.fowler@wbd-us.com.

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