When news broke last week that the top three candidates running for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky would not be attending Monday’s SOAR summit, we initially took that as pretty bad news. After all, shouldn’t these people who hope to represent Kentucky — all of Kentucky — want to attend a meeting at which discussion would be held about the future of the eastern half of the state?
Certainly they should have, and kudos to Matt Bevin, the Republican challenging Mitch McConnell, for changing course and making an appearance. But ultimately it didn’t really matter if any candidate or all of them showed up. It didn’t matter so much if Congressman Rogers or Gov. Beshear, or House Speaker Greg Stumbo or Senate President Robert Stivers showed up. (They all did.)
What mattered about the Shaping Our Appalachian Region summit is that Eastern Kentucky showed up. It mattered that small business owners like Jenn Noble from Treehouse Café showed up. Or Andrew Abbot, a Hazard High School graduate and engineering major at Morehead State University. Or Brandon Pennington, executive director of Harlan County’s tourism organization.
It mattered that they were there because among the silver manes that made up much of the audience on the floor of the Expo Center, these folks representing the younger generation presented the rest of us with a glimpse of our region’s future.
Our elected leaders can schedule all the summits, talk for eons about training and education, and promise to support this industry or that. But none of it matters so much if our younger generation doesn’t buy into the concept of a self-sustaining region where opportunity is not something old men in suits talk about, but something that exists as a reality they can bank on once they earn their college degrees and enter the workforce.
The biggest killer of Appalachia has been the “brain drain” — a migration of our younger people from the hills to the cities where jobs and an opportunity to build a better life awaits them. This has to stop if any of the ideas brought forward on Monday can gain any traction at all.
Paul Patton said yesterday that education is the key, but how can we expect our college graduates to remain here in Eastern Kentucky when the skills and knowledge they have gained simply are not in demand in Hazard or Pikeville? It is obvious from Monday’s summit that young people want to work to build a better future for our mountains, and Monday was an encouraging first step.
But like every first step in a long journey there has to be a second and then a third and many more afterward. The question now is whether our region has the capacity to develop an economy where opportunity abounds, or are we to be forever doomed as a one-note economy dependant on an extractive industry that continues to fade?
We like to think we have that ability, the willingness to make a go at a better region where things like tourism, the arts, research and development, agriculture, and coal mining can coexist to provide our future generations with opportunity they will sorely need in the decades to come. And at this point, whether we have that ability or not, we don’t have a choice but to try.
— The Hazard Herald