When Rocky Adkins was elected state representative from the 99th District 26 years ago, access to his home in Elliott County was like the punch line to an old joke: “You can’t there from here. You have to go somewhere else and start from there.”
Although the youngest member of the Kentucky General Assembly at the time he was elected at 26, Adkins did not let his age and lack of political experience and clout deter him: He immediately started lobbying to improve access to his small rural county with the small village of Sandy Hook as its county seat. Because of its small population, the movers and shakers in Frankfort were convinced there were not enough votes in Elliott County to justify spending much money there. Plus, the county had a long record of always voting for Democrats regardless of who was running for office. That left little incentive for Republicans in the House of Representatives to help Adkins, a Democrat, secure funding for road projects in Elliott County.
But vowing to be different from his predecessors who never delivered on their campaign promises to improve the roads, Adkins never ceased his efforts to improve the state highways in Elliott County, and in so doing, make the county where Adkins, a basketball star at Elliott County High School before going on to excel on the court at Morehead State University, far less isolated.
At first, progress was slow. It was not until 1997 that funding was secured for a major improvement to Ky. 7, the major route from Grayson to Sandy Hook. It took three years to complete the first phase which involved widening and straightening a narrow, corkscrewing segment of the roadway from Ky. 557 to Ky. 32 at Newfoundland and replacing an aging steel-beam bridge over Laurel Gorge with a new concrete span.
On July 29, 16 years after improvements to Ky. 7 began, Adkins gathered with Gov. Steve Beshear and other dignitaries to break ground for the fourth phase of the reconstruction, which will run from Ky. 885 at the Green community to the Carter County line. Phase 4 will cost about $36 million and will bring the state’s total investment in improving the stretch of Ky. 7 that runs from Sandy Hook to about $60 million.
Work on Ky. 7 was enhanced by another major achievement of Adkins: The construction of the Little Sandy Correctional Complex near Sandy Hook, which employs 300. Immediately after the prison opened, Elliott County’s dubious distinction of always having the highest unemployment rate among the state’s 120 counties ended.
But getting the prison for Elliott County did not prove to be easy for Adkins. In fact, he was shocked and disappointed when a prison he thought he had secured for Elliott County was instead built in West Liberty in neighboring Morgan County. It took another decade to get a prison in Elliott County, and when it did come to the county, roads to the prison site were greatly improved.
Noting that poor access had always been a difficult hurdle to overcome in bringing new jobs to Elliott County, Adkins said he hoped the upgrading of Ky. 7 would prove to be the spark that “starts the engine of economic development and jobs for our people.” He might be right, but despite having much better roads, Elliott County remains sparsely populated and far from any major cities or highways. A poorly educated adult workforce also hampers economic growth in the county.
The prison is likely to remain the largest employer in the county outside of possibly the school system, but thanks largely to the perseverance of Rocky Adkins and State Sen. Walters Blevins getting to such locations at the beautiful Laural Gorge keeps getting easier and faster for all area residents.