SOAR announcement can be first step for Eastern Kentucky

October 30, 2013

We admit to our skepticism when this week a bi-partisan group of lawmakers announced an initiative aiming to give Eastern Kentucky some much needed economic assistance. Up until this week few had spoken of anything even remotely in the realm of recovery for the area besides those in the nonprofit sector.

However, after hearing the details of what Gov. Steve Beshear dubbed the SOAR initiative, our skepticism has waned and we’re looking forward to what this initiative could bring to our mountains.

After two years of massive job losses in the Eastern Coalfields, it seems our elected leaders are taking notice and acknowledging that we need jobs in addition to those afforded by coal mining, and an infrastructure (like roads) capable of supporting robust industry outside of an extractive economy. It seems they realize what we need most at the outset is a plan to make that happen, which will include input from folks not only in government but in the private sector, and are finally willing to put aside differences to look for help in producing that plan.

Some may take a look at Monday’s announcement of the SOAR initiative, which included support from Republican Congressman Hal Rogers along with the state legislators belonging to both parties, as just paying lip service to the problems this region faces, poverty and lack of opportunity chief among them.

And while it should be said that these leaders should not have to turn to the people who elected them for help to do the jobs they were chosen to do, it is nice to see the blame game put aside long enough to consider the need for a solution to problems that, no matter what caused them, are here and are not going away on their own.

This announcement is the first step in a long walk potentially leading us down a path of economic improvement. And why not at least try it? For the past few years we’ve heard from folks working in economic development that we need first to identify our problems and formulate a plan of action. The Eastern Kentucky summit Beshear and Rogers announced for December will bring together leaders from across the region to do just that.

This issue of a more diverse economy seems to have the attention of our elected leaders. We should all look to seize on this opportunity while we can, and they will be looking to us to help find solutions.

“There is an urgent need for change and a new way of thinking about the issues in Appalachia,” Gov. Beshear said in a statement released on Monday. “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. Most critical, these solutions must be driven and championed by the individuals who call Appalachia home, because it is their enthusiasm and support that will carry these visions to reality.”

It is refreshing to hear Beshear discuss a new way of thinking to address the issues we face. Perhaps these leaders can take the time to look into smaller scale initiatives that are doing just what SOAR will aim to do. The Invision Hazard committee formed this year is pooling resources from across the county to help figure out ways to alleviate the strain these lost jobs have put on the economy.

What we’re taking from Monday’s announcement is that Beshear and Rogers, who operate on complete opposite ends of the political spectrum, have found a common cause for which they can work together – the future of Appalachia, a region filled with bright, inventive, and able people willing to take on the challenges. But only in rare instances have we had leaders willing to take the reins and lead the discussion.

We should try to be positive that at least something is seemingly being done. What we shouldn’t be, however, is impatient. The summit won’t magically turn things around, and this is going to be a long slog for our region that likely won’t yield tangible results for several years. But it’s a trek we must make and this is a first step we should take right now.

It is not impossible to envision an Eastern Kentucky that has transformed from a region stricken with poverty and a lack of hope to one that offers our children and grandchildren more opportunities than it offered to us. A failure to take these first steps now condemns future generations to the same—or worse—fate many in our region have suffered for too long, and that is inexcusable.

— The Hazard Herald