E. Ky. communities to take reigns in SOAR initiative

Amelia Holliday — Staff Reporter

December 18, 2013

HAZARD—The momentum was carried over from last week’s Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) summit into the day after with a roundtable discussion hosted in Hazard to continue dialogues about the region and what the next step should be for the area’s economically damaged counties.

The SOAR summit was announced by U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers and Gov. Steve Beshear earlier this year as a way to bring together Eastern Kentuckians to talk about how the region’s economy can be healed. It was held in Pikeville on Dec. 9.

Earl Gohl, who serves as federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), led the roundtable held at Hazard Community and Technical College on Dec. 10.

“I think yesterday was a very important day for Eastern Kentucky. The challenge that we have coming out of this [is] what is it we’re going to do to move forward from the meeting, move forward toward these goals,” Gohl addressed the group and audience in attendance.

Both private and public sector representatives from the area were present at the roundtable. Rick King, ARH’s chief legal officer, said the summit made him remember an earlier time in history when Eastern Kentucky was under the spotlight. In 1968, Robert Kennedy took a tour of Eastern Kentucky in order to better understand the hardships the people in the area were facing.

“Meetings like this, well, give me a lot of hope,” King said of the summit.

King said he hoped the summit and everything that came after would be something that would inspire as much hope in the people of Eastern Kentucky as Kennedy’s visit had in him.

Karen Kelly, district director for Congressman Hal Rogers’ office, said Rogers was very pleased with the event, adding that it showed how much those in the area care about their region for over half of the nearly 1,700 people in attendance of SOAR to be private citizens.

“We’re either going to be victims in Eastern Kentucky … or we’re going to be survivors, and my parents taught me to be a survivor,” Kelly said.

Gohl explained that while SOAR was commendable and definitely an unprecedented effort, the real job was to be done on a smaller scale in communities and local governments making sure there was follow-through with the summit’s purpose.

MACED President Justin Maxson compared the state’s transitioning of tobacco-based communities from a tobacco-based economy to the transitioning — or lack thereof — of coal counties from coal-dependent economies. He noted that the problem he saw at this point was not that there was a problem with finding ways to help these struggling counties in Eastern Kentucky, but there is definitely an issue with getting the ball rolling on these ideas.

“I think we know a ton of what to do in the region; there’s a lot of great ideas,” Maxson said. “We just need to align and bring up these ideas for implementation.

Many of the same ideas presented at the SOAR summit were presented at the roundtable, including collaboration instead of competition between organizations like MACED and the Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation, and an increased interest and investment in entrepreneurship and small businesses in the region.

Pat Bradley with the Southeastern Kentucky Economic Development (SKED) Corporation said she thought investment in small businesses was one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle to putting the region’s economy back together. However, whether or not that was true, she said the people of Eastern Kentucky needed to see something happening in the region in order to keep alive the hope that had been sparked by SOAR.

“Our folks here want to keep the momentum going. It’s very important,” she said. “There’s got to be something tangible in the next few months that they can cling to.”