PIKEVILLE — As Monday’s Shaping Our Appalachian Region summit was drawing to close Monday afternoon, state Rep. Leslie Combs, of Pikeville, remarked that she had an answer for all of those wanting to know how the conference was going.
“I think it’s going great,” Combs said, “but what’s really important is what we do when we get up tomorrow morning.”
That message appears to be what event organizers hope all of the nearly 2,000 SOAR attendees took home with them, following a full day of sharing ideas about what is next for Eastern Kentucky, in the face of an uncertain future.
The SOAR summit was planned by U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers and Gov. Steve Beshear as a way to bring together Eastern Kentuckians from all walks of life to help craft a plan for improving the region’s economy in the wake of continuing declines in the coal industry.
Former Gov. Paul Patton, himself a former coal operator, gave the darkest assessment of what the future holds in the wake of what he called “the collapse of the coal industry.” He said that those who believe coal is currently at its lowest point are in for a rude awakening.
Patton noted that while Eastern Kentucky counties have already seen 43 percent of coal jobs vanish, the planned closure of 31 coal-fired power plants over the next five years will likely mean what mining jobs remain will likely be cut in half again. For that reason, he said, it is important for leaders to work together to bring new types of jobs to the region.
“And we don’t want minimum-wage jobs,” Patton said.
And as the gavel fell on the event, Rogers and Beshear gave some indication about what the path forward holds, announcing that the SOAR initiative would continue and grow.
Rogers announced his intent to create a “Silicon Holler” in Eastern Kentucky, saying he will be pushing forward on plans to bring a world-class data pipeline to Eastern Kentucky. Once in place, the pipeline would encircle the region, running through Ashland, Pikeville, Somerset, Mt. Vernon and Morehead. Then, he said, Eastern Kentucky could realistically compete against the rest of the world for high-tech jobs.
“And there are thousands of those jobs out there,” Rogers said.
Beshear said SOAR will continue, evolving into working groups — “not planning groups, but working groups” — to tackle some of the issues facing Eastern Kentucky. Organizers of the event will spend the next 30 days sorting through comments made during the summit, before reporting proposals to Beshear and Rogers. Afterwards, the two men will take another 30 days to craft an administrative framework that push the initiative forward, and the governor committed Monday to finding a way to fund a permanent administrative structure for the SOAR initiative.
The governor also said that he is directing his staff and state agencies to begin looking for ways to invest in Eastern Kentucky, listing only the completion of the Mountain Parkway and increased broadband availability as specific examples. He also said he has directed tourism officials to do a better job of branding the region.
But even at the day’s outset, it was clear that leaders wanted to spend little time talking and more time doing.
“We are not here to have another study,” Rogers said to applause at the conference’s opening. “We are here to get to work on the plan.”
House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins agreed.
“We have talked the talk a long time,” Adkins said. “I think many in this audience would agree, it’s time to walk the walk.”
Senate Majority Whip Brandon Smith said that the solutions to Eastern Kentucky’s challenges could not be solved with an open checkbook.
“I don’t want anyone bringing any more checks and handouts to us,” Smith said. “That is not what we need.”
Republican Senate candidate Matt Bevin — the only one of the three major candidates in next year’s race to attend — said he thought the event was going well and represented “everything I had hoped it could be.” However, he said he had some advice to the many government leaders in attendance — listen to the people and get out of their way.
“Thomas Edison said a lot of times opportunity isn’t recognized because it shows up in overalls and looking like hard work,” Bevin said.
State House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said in his opening remarks that, while the challenges facing Eastern Kentucky are tough, he believes the answers to those challenges are in the mountains.
“There is nothing wrong in Eastern Kentucky that cannot be fixed by what is right in Eastern Kentucky,” Stumbo said.
The SOAR summit was a full day of presentations and workshops on economic development in the region. Beginning from an assumption that “all ideas are live,” the conference asked those attending to offer proposals for strengthening and diversifying the Eastern Kentucky economy.
Beshear reflected on his upbringing as the son of a Baptist minister, noting how at the end of many services, the church would have an “altar call,” asking those attending to come forward to make a commitment to their faith. He said Monday’s summit was similar.
“I consider this summit today an altar call for the people of Eastern Kentucky,” Beshear said. “And I take your attendance today as a commitment.”