SLADE – The political leaders who organized the bipartisan Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative have long stressed that one key to success will be creation of a more cohesive regional identity, with more collaboration across county lines.
That has been the focus of SOAR’s Regional Collaboration and Identity Working Group, which had its final meeting last week at Natural Bridge Resort Park. The meeting drew 21 people, who sat at a round table discussing the assets and challenges of their counties and a few solid ideas to enhance the collaboration and sense of regional identity in Eastern Kentucky.
As they introduced themselves, some participants endorsed the idea of blurring county lines, combining areas that share similar goals and interests and want to work together.
“Everyone identifies themselves by a county. … There is a lot of territorialism, I’ve found out,” said Ohio native Nancy Hamann, owner of Scenic Cabin Rentals and Daniel Boone Trading Post in Lee, Powell and Wolfe counties. “Lots of people want to be here … You need to go out and capitalize on that.”
Peter Hille, executive vice president of the Berea-based Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, said he also had “an outsider’s perspective,” but of a different kind.
“When we talk about identity, we usually hear of people from the outside talking bad about people from Eastern Kentucky,” Hiller said. “Some of the worst things I’ve heard said about East Kentuckians is from the middle-class East Kentuckians. … We have an internal identity problem.”
Hamann said some people think SOAR will fail, as other attempts to improve the region have, but Gerry Roll of Hazard, executive director of the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, told the group, “Never mind ‘We’ve tried it before.’ “Let’s try it again, together.”
Participants offered several ideas, such as capitalizing on the arts, tax reform, increasing entrepreneurial education, marketing for small-business job opportunities, reallocation of coal severance-tax funds, getting tourism initiatives recognized as economic development, improving the region’s overall health.
The region and the state need laws banning smoking in workplaces and enclosed public spaces to reduce the number of people who smoke, Clark County Health Director Scott Lockard said. “We can appreciate the history of tobacco while at the same time acknowledging it’s the number one killer in the state.”
Though this was the working group’s last meeting, “Regional collaboration is an ongoing process,” said Sandy Runyon, the working group chair, who reports to the SOAR executive committee. “This topic will continue as the SOAR initiative continues and will be really important as we move on down the road.”