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.