Struggling coal town betting on casino to bring in new jobs and tourism

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A city built on coal may soon be saved by casino gambling if developers in Jenkins, Kentucky get their way. 

“This city was built on coal, it very much was, but if we’re going to continue to grow the city it’s going to have to be built on something else,” said Kevin Mullins, an investor in Raven Rock Casino Resort. 

Letcher County was the largest coal producer in Kentucky in 1916. Over the decades, thousands of coal jobs declined to dozens and families without work left town, according to Mullins. 

“The biggest thing that helps a city grow is having families living here with jobs and their kids going to your schools,” said City of Jenkins Mayor Todd DePriest. 

DePriest said about 60 percent of their community is retired or untaxable. Still, he said unemployment is at about 10 percent. 

“Most all travel 45 minutes to an hour to get to a good job,” said DePriest.

Raven Rock Entertainment CEO James Hibbitts said they expect their casino to bring in nearly one thousand jobs with an average annual salary of 50 thousand dollars. 

DePriest expects it’ll bring in about one million in tax revenue in the first year of operation. 

“There is no magic bullet but this is as close as we’re going to see to a magic bullet,” said Mullins. 

Raven Rock Casino Resort would overlook Eastern Kentucky from a plateau on Pine Mountain. 

Hibbitts said they want this to be a family destination. “Raven Rock can be the draw for the whole area. We want downhill biking, tree top walks, ziplines, mountain coasters, things like that, a true adventure,” said Hibbitts. “But what’s going to drive it economically is the gaming floor.” 

That will require a change in Kentucky state law, which currently bans casino gambling. 

Hibbitts said this project has been in the works since 2016. He said it’s gaining traction among lawmakers, especially as they search for new sources of tax revenue to support the state’s depleted pension fund. 

But like their neighbors just over the state line in Virginia, they’re facing road blocks. 

“We have a lot of other states that have expanded gaming that are basically lobbying against expanding gaming in Kentucky,” said Mullins. 

Hibbitts and Mullins maintain that they’ll have better luck passing legislation in Kentucky than in Virginia. 

“Kentucky is a gambling state, Kentucky is a betting state, it’s a horse racing state,” said Hibbitts. 

They think that mentality will make the difference in the race to capture out-of-state revenue by expanding gaming. 

A casino proposal in Bristol, Virginia has prompted widespread backlash from the religious community. This opposition could kill a casino project in a local referendum, even if lawmakers give them the green light. 

Hibbitts said this isn’t the case in Jenkins. “The pastors realize if they don’t have people in their pews, then they don’t have churches,” said Hibbitts, “Giving up isn’t an option. There’s nothing else on the table for us.” 

Mullins said their could be movement on legislation that would allow the project to move forward as early as this February. 

He said the project will take about two years to complete once approved. 

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