PIKEVILLE — The Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) Summit was held Monday at the East Kentucky Expo Center. The SOAR initiative strives to bring economic development to the Appalachian communities of Kentucky that have struggled for decades with poverty. Monday’s summit was filled with headline-worthy activity.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler and Dr. Tom Frieden, who is the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were in attendance, along with Congressman Hal Rogers, Gov. Matt Bevin and multitudes of community government leaders.
As is the case with each SOAR Summit, the seats of the Expo Center were filled with representatives from area nonprofits and businesses, as well as educators and taxpayer-funded agencies that are advancing, or trying to advance, SOAR’s mission.
Presenters were on site to demonstrate ways plans are already being developed to help ease the strains the declining coal industry has placed on Eastern Kentucky’s economy. Presenters showed how laid-off coal miners are now receiving training to write computer code. A high-tech entrepreneur among the presenters said he plans to hire 50 trainees from Eastern Kentucky.
Education was also a strong focal point of the summit. During the presentations, programs encouraging student interest in science and technical fields were highlighted. Nonprofit groups also showcased their ideas, which include trying to turn the region’s agriculture into a local food system, leasing a reclaimed strip mine to create a wildlife park and a group that aspires to use faith-based approaches to fight a range of community problems.
“Do you believe more now than you did two hours ago?” Gov. Matt Bevin asked the crowd.
SOAR began under the direction of Hal Rogers and former Governor, Steve Beshear. Gov. Bevin now claims the spot with SOAR that Beshear once held. Bevin expressed that he would limit the plan for Kentucky’s proposed broadband network to exclusively include East Kentucky as opposed to the entire state, which is news many in the region will find reassuring, since Beshear and Rogers had promoted improved internet and broadband access as a possible solution to East Kentucky’s job woes.
When speaking of Bevin’s newly declared enthusiasm for the East Kentucky broadband project, Rogers said the governor has, “Unvarnished enthusiasm for what we’re doing.”
FCC chair, Tom Wheeler, said high-speed Internet, “Is the most important commodity for the 21st Century. The information economy of the 21st Century runs on high-speed broadband, and if you don’t have that commodity you’re not part of the new economy.”
Wheeler noted the efforts of Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative, which has extended high-speed fiber-optic cable to all its customers, including 150 of the Teleworks clients, with the help of federal loans, economic-stimulus grants and the FCC’s Universal Service Fund, which it recently shifted to broadband from basic telephone service. He said the experience proves, “If you can do it here, you can do it anywhere.”
Members of a group called the Letcher County Governance Project held a silent protest during Congressman Roger’s address at the SOAR Summit. The protesters congregated together and held up signs with messages that demonstrate opposition to the new federal prison that is proposed to be built in Letcher County. The prison will cost nearly 444 million dollars to complete. Rogers, as well as other local leaders, claim the new prison will help create jobs. Opponents of the new prison, however, believe such a large amount of government money could have been used in a manner that will better advance the local economy.
Throughout the day, topics ranging from health, to education, to job creation and economic stimulation were discussed in a bipartisan manner by representatives of each Southeast Kentucky region and officials from Washington. Everyone hopes that Monday’s discussions will lead to positive results that the world will be able to see by the time the next SOAR Summit rolls around.
Sam Neace can be reached at 606-6293243 or on Twitter @HazardHerald.