HAZARD—Just over a week after a new bipartisan initiative to help save a collapsing Eastern Kentucky economy was announced by Gov. Steve Beshear and Congressman Hal Rogers, members of the Shaping Our Appalachian Future (SOAR) committee are preparing for the first planning meeting for the SOAR summit next month.
Ron Daley, a Hindman resident and member of the East Kentucky Leadership Foundation, said as one of the more than 40 SOAR committee members he is excited to start actually working toward helping the region as a whole. The planning meeting is set for Thursday at Natural Bridge State Resort Park.
“We don’t have time to sit around and just talk,” Daley said, adding that the committee will be looking at concrete and action oriented solutions to the economic distress in the region. “We know that to have the quality of life and job growth we need in Eastern Kentucky that we need to develop short-term and long-term strategies.”
Daley said the summit, which is set for Dec. 9 at the Expo Center in Pikeville, will be open not only to business and government leaders in the area but to anyone in the community who wants to have some kind of input, or wants to simply hear the discussion on how to help the region.
“We want to have all the people in the region that are interested in being a part of that discussion and the planning involved,” he said.
Jeff Whitehead, executive director of the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program (EKCEP), said this planning meeting and the upcoming summit are really just the first step on a long road to a hopeful recovery of the region’s economy.
“I think it’s just the beginning. I do think it needs to be the beginning of a regional solution to try to diversify our economy. That’s what’s critical here, and I don’t think that there is an easy answer,” Whitehead said.
Whitehead said it is obvious that some solutions that have been spoken on again and again, like better education, are by themselves not the way to fix the problems in our region.
“Those are all certainly a part of a solution, but there’s not a magic bullet,” he said. “I think that we really need to keep a really open mind and try to look at this in a real fresh way.”
Dr. Steve Greiner, president of the Hazard Community and Technical College (HCTC), said he plans to come to the table with an open mind to any and all solutions.
“Of course, we need to look at the natural beauty, and tourism certainly comes to mind with the area and all of the environmental amenities that we have here in Eastern Kentucky,” Greiner said. “I think that we also need to take a look at how education plays an important part in our future of our economic development.”
Whitehead said the most important thing to ensure during this process is that the region as a whole is connected in a common cause.
“I think that’s really important that we just try to get as many of these initiatives and people in leadership pulling together in the same direction to try to tackle the same issue,” he said. “We’re going to be giving everybody the opportunity to weigh in on this.”
Greiner said he hopes participation in the initiative will grow exponentially in the coming months as the process takes off.
“This is something that we know is going to take some time. It’s going to take years of cooperation and working together to accomplish any goals that are set out,” he said.