HAZARD—In response to the over 6,000 jobs lost in the region in the last two years, Gov. Steve Beshear and Rep. Hal Rogers, along with state leaders from both sides of the aisle, this week announced a new initiative to help heal the wounds Southeastern Kentucky’s broken economy has made in the region.
“Everyone in this room knows how the economic pressures of the last few years have hurt the growth and development of Appalachia and intensified hardships for families here,” Beshear said during a press conference at the Hazard Community and Technical College campus Monday morning. “For Eastern and Southeastern Kentucky to catch up and move ahead we need new strategies. What are those strategies? Well, that’s what we want to find out.”
Beshear announced that a summit, called Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR), would be held on Dec. 9 at the Eastern Kentucky Expo Center in Pikeville. The Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI), a national institute dedicated to promoting discussions to find solutions to challenges facing rural communities, will be brought in as a consultant for the summit to help open up discussions between the hundreds of private sector and government leaders attending.
“We must work together to attack our regional obstacles from many angles, by emphasizing public, private, and philanthropic partnerships to address and implement improvements in education, health, work-readiness, infrastructure, and more,” Beshear said.
RUPRI President and CEO Chuck Fluharty said he couldn’t agree more with the governor.
“This is about the region deciding what it does and nothing else. It is only the start. This is the first step,” Fluharty said.
Fluharty explained that his organization has worked with many communities and regions in the same — if not worse — shape as Southeastern Kentucky.
“Usually regions decide to work on this when a huge problem confronts them. A large industry has left, there’s been a huge remediation effort, there’s a major change in economic restructuring, etc,” he said. “Almost everywhere we go there’s a challenge that presents itself and the real question is how does the public sector think with the business community, the not-for-profits, the educational sector, health, entrepreneurship, etc.—how we move beyond that one industry.”
Fluharty said RUPRI would be looking at communities that have pulled through similar economic crises to Southeastern Kentucky’s, such northern Minnesota which created the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board in the 1940s in order to deal with the loss of thousands of jobs when the iron range closed.
“It’s an amazing place today because the region decided to change its future,” he added.
Small scale revitalization projects, like the Invision Hazard committee tasked with revitalizing the downtown area, will be something those at the summit will have to look to as an example, Fluharty said. He added that the key to success for the region is communication between all sectors and a connection between everyone in the region.
“One of the regions we worked in had the Mayo Clinic and it had a major food processing center. Those two leaders had never talked. They were 30 miles apart and they had never talked,” he said. “They now have a $12 million value chain between those two industries. It is about having a new discussion about innovations … and a way to build linkages between people.”
Fluharty said the biggest positive about the announcement is that it shows those in the area want to do something.
“We in Appalachia love our Appalachia. That cannot be lost in all of this. I call it placed people, these folks aren’t leaving if they have a choice — that is a huge asset for a region,” he said.