By BRUCE SCHREINERLOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) â¿¿ A longtime coal operator plans to open seven mines in the heart of the eastern Kentucky coalfields in a venture expected to create more than 250 jobs in a hard-pressed region where several thousand mining jobs have disappeared in recent years. Bill Smith said most of the coal extracted by his High Ridge Mining operation in Pike County will be shipped to China to help fuel its economy. "We plan on mining a million tons a year," Smith said recently. It's a business model that officials hope will rejuvenate the area's slumping coal industry as they increasingly look abroad at emerging markets as domestic demand has dwindled. "The short-term economic outlook for coal seems dismal, but due to the growth taking place in Asia, coal is needed to sustain it," said Pike County Judge-Executive Wayne T. Rutherford. He insists that makes the long-term outlook for eastern Kentucky coal "rather bright." Officials expect Smith's new venture will draw large numbers of job applicants, including plenty of out-of-work miners. "People are hurting," Rutherford said Monday. "Their quality of life has been hit like it's never been hit before." Coal mining jobs in Kentucky have dropped from 15,500 in April 2012 to 11,700 this past April, according to state figures. In April 2009, the mining workforce was 18,200. The employment drop has coincided with a decline in output. Production in eastern Kentucky fell to 49.4 million tons last year, the lowest level since 1965, according to the report from the state's Department for Energy Development and Independence. In western Kentucky's coal region, production was up slightly last year by 2.5 percent, to 42 million tons. Pike County had a jobless rate of 11.1 percent this past March, well above the statewide rate of 8 percent in the same month.