Stories From the Mountains: Joe Crawford and the Estill Development Alliance, A Tie that Binds Community


By Donna Daniels, Reprinted with permission from Stories from the Mountains

For people working to improve Estill County, the Estill Development Alliance (EDA) is one of the resources at their disposal. EDA, which was founded in 1995, is a nonprofit community and economic development organization serving Estill County, with particular focus on Irvine and Ravenna.

EDA has embraced a collaborative approach to community economic development, says Executive Director Joe Crawford, and he describes his organization as the “thread” that runs through a variety of projects in the community. While a thread may seem insignificant at first glance, it can unite efforts to make them stronger. However, Crawford is quick to give credit to the community members who have been working on projects to improve life in Estill County for years. When he started as EDA director more than a decade ago, he recognized people throughout the community had interest and passion to work toward its improvement.

“There are plenty of folks all over Appalachia who are innovative,” Crawford said. “They use what they have at their disposal to make things work People are inherently good. Everyone cares about something; you just have to figure out what it is.”

When Crawford came on as director, he started a strategic planning process for EDA that was inspired by Dr. Vaughn Grisham, whom Crawford had heard speak at the Brushy Fork Annual Institute. He called the project “EC2: Planning 2day for Estill County 2morrow.” Community members attended a two-day planning session in which they talked about visions and projects for the county. During follow-up sessions, they formed action teams focused on various aspect of the community. Some of these groups became working task forces, while others contributed their vision and ideas for future efforts.

“The work has been about small steps,” Crawford said. “We celebrate our small successes as they come, and we strive to be inclusive in all the work we do.”

This slow and steady formula allows for an organic ebb and flow of activity, and has resulted in projects and programs that are moving the community and the region forward.

Leadership LEAP, or Learn, Empower, Attain and Progress, is one of these programs. Now in its seventh year, the program serves up to five counties in each cycle: Estill, Lee, Powell, Jackson and Owsley. The program provides sessions about history, economic development, leadership skills, legislation and policy and other topics. Crawford and representatives from Lee and Powell Counties recognized the benefit in working together after LEAP’s first year only focused on Estill County. Together, they could pool resources, they had a broader population from which to seek participants, and they could encourage collaboration across county lines. Now, Leadership LEAP is a strong, locally grown, regional approach to leadership development, and is an expression of the value that Crawford strives to bring to program participants.

“It is so enlightening to get out and bring together people who are doing good things, especially across county lines,” Crawford said. “You get to meet people you might otherwise have never laid eyes on, even if they are just a county away. They are dealing with identical issues, and you realize you are not the only ones facing challenges.”

Travel can be an issue in the five-county region, so the program rotates its meetings from county to county. This gives participants a chance to highlight successes in their communities, including stories about new businesses and development efforts.

Some of those examples of success include Estill County being home to a well-known regional hospital and other health facilities that serve the five-county area, as well as its long-standing relationship with the Carhartt company. Jackson County houses a state-of-the-art water treatment facility, and is the only county in eastern Kentucky to extend high-speed, fiber-optic broadband internet service to every home Jackson and Owsley Counties.

Leadership LEAP has graduated almost 90 participants in the past seven years, and Crawford has witnessed strong connections across county lines continue to flourish. Participants not only share ideas on projects, but they also collaborate on helping each another receive grants.

“LEAP is one of our greatest successes,” Crawford said. “Sometimes, it is easier for our small towns to connect with the bigger municipalities than with each other. This program and the personal connections encourage us to look to each other.”

The acquisition of the Mack Theater is another EDA project that has been decades in the making. The group hopes to attain the now-closed movie theater in the hopes of helping the community turn it into a community arts venue. A small group meeting at the public library in 2013 evolved into the River City Players (RCP), a local theater group that works to promote the performing arts among community members. This group has long sought to redevelop the theater. Crawford was instrumental in connecting the group to larger community efforts.

“I talked to the EDA board, and everyone knew we really needed to help, so we offered to partner [with RCP] and make them an operating division,” he said. This means the EDA assists RCP with administration, and the president of RCP was elected to the EDA board.

RCP offers programs to engage the community in performance arts, such as community theater productions and a summer theater camp for students. They have engaged a local writer to produce plays based on Estill County stories and history. As the community gains an increased appreciation for performing arts, they also participate in the redevelopment of the Mack Theater.

The community has raised $40,000 toward the purchase and renovation of the theater through a variety of fundraisers over the past two years. The owner of the Mack Theater is working collaboratively with the community on the purchase. Crawford says the group continues to raise funds for operations and redevelopment work. The community’s efforts and investments have positioned the project for potential funding from federal and foundation sources. EDA and River City Players continue to keep the community engaged in efforts around the Mack.

“The building holds a lot of memories for people,” Crawford said. “So, we will continue to engage them in the planning and the efforts to make it a community resource for community arts that will serve everyone.”

The Mack Theater is just one downtown revitalization project in which the EDA has a hand. A group of younger Estill Countians approached Crawford when they wanted to form their own group focused on outdoor recreation and giving back. The Estill Action Group became an operating division of the EDA one month after Lindsey Rogers presented the idea. The group has its own accounts and its own board, as well as a member on the EDA board.

The group originally hosted a variety of activities to help young people experience the natural beauty Estill County had to offer, such as kayak trips and hiking. Now, in addition to those activities, they’ve become a driving force behind seeking the designation of Irvine and Ravenna as the Twin City Trail Town, a state certification they hope to receive by spring of 2017. As part of the Trail Town effort, they have become engaged in downtown revitalization with a focus on regularly scheduled events to get people back to Main Street.

“They wanted to be involved in the community on their own terms, and this gave them that opportunity,” Crawford said. Once the Trail Town certification is in place, the Estill Action Group wants to explore how to create a visitor’s center that can serve as a hub for activities.

The EDA has completed a variety of other projects related to revitalization and economic development, including a buy-local, think-local initiative in 2011. Estill County Local-Motive blossomed into Eastern Kentucky Local-Motive, and operates under the umbrella of EDA, with member-partner organizations in each participating county.

The Estill County Chamber of Commerce is also a division of the EDA. It facilitates business networking opportunities for its members, offers training based on stated needs, and organizes fun and educational events for the entire community. One such event is Revive River Drive, which was organized by a small group of citizens in 2012 as an informal gathering during Labor Day weekend. Organizers wanted the event to rekindle the lost art of “cruising River Drive,” which was a popular activity for teens until recent years. Organizers found a support base and quickly outgrew the capabilities of a small group of volunteers. The Chamber stepped in to partner, and now handles the administration and promotion of “Revive River Drive,” which now serves as a homecoming for Estill County and grows larger each year.

EDA launched the Innovation Center for Entrepreneurs, or ICE Box, in the summer of 2012. It is the first – and remains the only – business incubator in the county. ICE Box offers business start-up services and assistance, as well as low cost office space. EDA also maintains a close relationship with the Small Business Development Center to bring resources they provide to the community.

The work of just economic transition means that every person is welcome at the table, and engaging people from across the community requires Crawford to be the thread that weaves connections throughout the community.

“We have to make sure that we are inclusive and that we are aware of good ideas from all sources. We have to be aware of the assets we have and use them to lift up the folks we have,” Crawford said. “To transition the right way, you have to reach out to everyone for both the conversation and the results.”

The EDA’s newest effort is Estill Rising, a “renewal of the kind of push we had with EC2,” Crawford said. This year’s Estill Rising was a one-day event featuring workshops about specific areas of interest for organizations that have been working on community development. Representatives from the successful Trail Town in Livingston, Ky., led a session on their efforts. Estill Countians with an interest in the historical society attended a workshop by the Hardin County History Museum on how to expand offerings of culture and heritage. In another session, the Mercer County Arts Council presented about how to incorporate arts into the community. Southeast Kentucky Economic Development provided a tourism development training for those interested in setting up businesses for visitors. And a representative from the Grand Theater in Lancaster, Ky., shared about that community’s experiences with opening an old theater and booking acts to perform.

Crawford also reached out to noted small-town and rural champion Becky McCray, to see if she might do a keynote for Estill Rising. McCray is a small business owner from rural northwest Oklahoma who has produced a web site, Small Biz Survival, and a book, Small Town Rules. She provides practical programs and facilitation on small business, rural trends, economic development and marketing. Crawford was surprised to learn that she had been following the efforts of various divisions of EDA online, and that she was willing to give the keynote. After community members heard McCray speak, some of them continued to participate in webinars with her.

“We order pizza and have viewing parties,” Crawford said. “We learn practical stuff like ‘How do you get your downtown alive after five?’”

Crawford is still working on how to reach everyone in the community and cites communication as a big challenge, but he continues his approach of cross promotion among groups to foster community development.

“I encourage people to pursue their passions,” he said. “I help bring attention to things where they need to be at the time, but I’m just a conductor; anybody and everybody can make their place better, no matter what resources you have at your disposal. It’s everyone’s personal responsibility. And you can’t give up. Persistence is the key.”


The Mountain Association for Community Economic Development turns 40 this year. To help celebrate this milestone, the organization has taken a step back to reflect on the amount of just economic transition that’s taken place in the region over the past 40 years. They’ve been collecting stories, and have compiled them on a new website, “Stories from the Mountains.”

Renew Appalachia is proud to share some of those stories over the holiday months, as a way to spread the hope and joy that is present when the people of eastern Kentucky begin to rebuild their communities together, with an eye on the future.