HAZARD—Another step forward was made in the initiative to mend Eastern and Southeastern Kentucky’s broken economy on Monday with the announcement of an executive planning committee for the SOAR (Shaping Our Appalachian Region) initiative.
The SOAR summit was announced by U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers and Gov. Steve Beshear last year as a way to bring together Eastern Kentuckians to talk about how the region’s economy can be healed. It was held in Pikeville on Dec. 9. Since then, only county-level planning meetings have been held to plan next steps moving forward.
“The Congressman (Rogers) and I spent several weeks reviewing the SOAR report from the summit that occurred in December. We then turned to look for people, people to carry out this work, community leaders with proven tenacity, organizational skills, and commitment, and who can devote time and resources to these tasks,” Beshear said during the press conference for the announcement held at the Hazard Community and Technical College.
The people Beshear and Rogers found were chosen to be part of a 15 member executive committee to oversee design, execution, and funding of SOAR activities leading up to the next summit at the end of the year. The committee will also be tasked with finding a permanent executive director. Chuck Fluharty, president and CEo of the Rural Policy Research Institute, will be serving as interim executive director. Fluharty was brought in as a consultant to assist in planning the SOAR summit in December.
Beshear also announced that 10 working groups are being formed to help lead the discussion on topics of importance to fixing the region’s economy at the summit last year, including agriculture, tourism, and infrastructure.
Chairman of the education and retraining working group, Jeff Whitehead, the executive director of EKCEP (Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program), said he has already begun planning some of what he hopes to focus on in his group.
“It is early, but the first step will be to kind of gather information specific to education and retraining ideas that have been brought forward since SOAR, since the summit in December,” Whitehead said. “We’ll be looking at people who attended the SOAR event, both that were on the original planning committee for education and retraining and also people that have reached out since then that would like to be a part of it, and kind of said I want to volunteer my time to work on these issues.”
Whitehead he hopes to have his group formed and ready for its first meeting before May.
“The end game here is how do we diversify our economy, and so, what we want to try to accomplish within the committee is what can we do from an education and retraining perspective that is perhaps different than we’re doing now,” he said.
Whitehead said some things his group will look at to try to change the way the region approaches education and retraining will be becoming more collaborative with all avenues of education and training in the area, as well as trying to become more innovative in the types of retraining and education made available to Eastern Kentuckians.
“I know it’s a big challenge, but it’s one we’re excited to be working towards,” he said.
Beshear said the formation of the executive committee will also help quell the fears of those who have said the SOAR initiative will end up like other initiatives for the region.
“Their fear is that the plan they produce will be relegated to a shelf, gathering dust, and forgotten. We’re here to tell you today that that is not going to happen with the SOAR initiative. It won’t happen because we have the elements to make it an ongoing transformational process for Kentucky’s Appalachian region,” he said. “Events since December have demonstrated in powerful terms that SOAR will become and is a catalyst for tangible progress.”
Rogers said it was imperative to keep the people of the region engaged in what the SOAR summit began last year.
“With the loss of nearly 2,300 more coal mining jobs in Eastern Kentucky last year, the urgency for action has never been greater,” he said. ” We vowed to plan our work and work our plan, and the executive committee members are taking on the monumental task of leading the way through uncharted waters.”
Beshear said the promise zone designation in the region as well as plans for high-speed Internet and a four-lane highway in the region are signs that the SOAR initiative has had far reaching influence.
“We know that we are asking a great deal of these leaders, and in turn, we’re also asking the citizens of Eastern Kentucky to stay engaged and to stay energized, because SOAR is just getting started,” Beshear said.
Amelia Holliday can be reached at 606-436-5771, or on Twitter @HazardHerald.