SOAR bipartisan effort seeks grass-roots input for Kentucky’s economy
Strategic plan outlined at Somerset conference
By Al Cross, Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues Commonwealth Journal
Do you have an idea for helping improve and diversify the economy of Appalachian Kentucky? Get ready to speak up.
The work groups of the Shaping our Appalachian Region (SOAR) effort plan to hold meetings in most parts of Eastern and Southern Kentucky this summer, to gather ideas for a strategic plan that will be written by the SOAR executive committee this fall.
The groups had their first meetings last week at the annual East Kentucky Leadership Conference at the Center for Rural Development in Somerset, a site that gave both the long-held conference and the months-old SOAR a broader geographic base, and wove together some of the region’s contrasting political threads.
“I’ve never seen so much progress or bipartisan commitment from the political establishment,” said Charles W. Fluharty, president of the Rural Policy Research Institute, who is acting as temporary staff leader for SOAR. “The challenge is to translate that to the grass roots.”
One idea frequently heard during the two-day meeting at the Center for Rural Development was a need to overcome the divisions created by county lines.
“The only way we’re going to get anything done is to come together as a region and do it,” Mike Miller, executive director of the Kentucky River Area Development District and a former mayor of Jackson, told the Regional Collaboration and Identity work group, one of 10.
Lake Cumberland Area Development District Executive Director Donna Diaz generally agreed, and said those involved in the effort shouldn’t use lack of government funding as an excuse for lack of action. “Building self-sufficiency is an important part of this,” she said.
Tourism prospects got much discussion at the meeting, but progress could come from many small successes, not big projects, said Peter Hille of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, who heads the East Kentucky Leadership Foundation, sponsor of the conference.
Hille said a small restaurant, Miguel’s, near Natural Bridge State Resort Park “is more famous worldwide than any of our state parks” because of its proximity to the Red River Gorge, which attracts hikers, rock climbers and outdoor enthusiasts from all over the globe. He said entrepreneurs can find opportunities in “things to do, places to stay and reasons to come back.”
Ideas may be easy to conceive, but executing them is often hard.
“Agriculture often gets overlooked as economic development,” said Mark Reece, a former agriculture and natural resources agent. But he cautioned, “Growing it is just not enough...if you don’t handle it the way the market wants it to be handled, you get nothing.”
The region’s most widely distributed commercial resource is timber, but is not professionally managed by most private landowners. SOAR needs to look for ways to encourage them to do that, said David Ditsch of the University of Kentucky’s Robinson Center for Appalachian Resource Sustainability. He added that there is also much potential in raising goats, sheep and even cattle on surface-mined land that has been reclaimed in grasses.
SOAR was launched in response to a steep decline in the region’s coal industry, but Ron Crouch, a demographer with the state Workforce Development Cabinet, said in the conference’s first presentation that the economy of the Eastern Kentucky Coalfield has been diversifying for many years, t the point that coal now ranks only sixth in employment, with health care ranking first, and such categories as education and retail trade in between.
SOAR is a bipartisan effort led by Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican 5th District U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Somerset. Some at the conference noted that a two-term governor from Pikeville, Democrat Paul Patton, created a Kentucky Appalachian Commission, only to see it abolished by his successor, Republican Ernie Fletcher.
Another governor will be elected in 2015. To protect the coming strategic plan from political change, “We’ve got to have structural changes that are institutionalized,” said Hindman lawyer and businessman Bill Weinberg, who headed the foundation for eight years.
Beshear told the conference that he has tried to make clear that SOAR “will not be directed by Frankfort or Washington,” but he said it “needs to overcome the skepticism that greets any government-generated idea,” and that will come from “your insight, your ideas and your energy.”