Growing up in Leslie County as a not very mechanically inclined boy in a region surrounded by mechanically inclined men, I managed to learn a few mechanical terms that to me had nearly magical connotations. One such word was “solder.” Per Webster’s online dictionary, the term, pronounced “sod-der” in Appalachia, means “to join (something made of metal) to something else with solder,” or, “to bring into or restore to firm union.” (For example, “a friendship soldered by common interests.”)
As the coal industry continues its apparent death spiral as a major employer in East Kentucky, I’m reminded of that term and a potential use in the current debate about “What should our region do next??” SOAR, Shaping Our Appalachian Region, has the potential to bring together a lot of forward thinking people and their ideas. An all-hands-on-deck approach is what’s needed. Ideas aren’t conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, environmental or pro-coal; they are neutral except as applied to the facts on the ground. Unfortunately, that hasn’t always been the case.
The debate over coal, which could be broken down into two camps- friends of coal and environmentalists- was of the utmost importance to our region. As is evident by the loss of jobs today, this debate had significant meaning. It was also highly divisive. Many good people on both sides of the debate could not fathom one another’s respective position. Heck, call a spade a spade: often, they couldn’t stand one another. Today, that debate is largely over. The war was decided in places like Wall Street and Washington D.C., for better or worse, and now we’re left with the consequences. Thus begins a new debate: What shall we do next?
This new debate creates an opportunity for environmentally minded capitalists to collaborate with friends of coal modernizers to support a more entrepreneurial region. Only through the power of entrepreneurship, which itself harnesses the potential of the marketplace, can our region grow. In other words, local entrepreneurs- perhaps even transplants- will be much more important than large, outsider industries. Since supporting entrepreneurship requires an ecosystem of friendly and helpful people and institutions, the more smart people on all sides of the political divide we can have working in tandem, the more successful we’ll be.
That’s what brings me back to the word “solder.” It’s probably a bit naïve to expect the leadership of Friends of Coal to sit down over a cup of coffee with the leadership of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and discuss a new tourist strategy for eastern Kentucky. At least at first; but by creating an organization headed by leaders of both political parties, and staffed by progressives and modernizers of both those parties, our region can slowly begin to pull together all these factions.
Soldering will require leadership and organization. It probably can’t happen on its own. But the outcome, in terms of some limited unity on public policy and cohesion on community & economic development could be a turning point in East Kentucky.
Johnathan Gay is the Director of the Kentucky Innovation Network office at Morehead State University. The opinions expressed here are his own.