It was indeed impressive that more than 1,700 gathered in Pikeville for Monday’s Shaping Our Appalachian Region — SOAR — summit, but it is much too early to determine the impact of what may have been the largest gathering ever of the region’s political, business and economic development leaders. Much more important than what occurred during the day-long conference is what will take place in the coming weeks, months and years as a result of the summit.
Convened by Gov. Steve Behear, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican, the summit was billed as a bipartisan effort to address this region’s growing economic woes, problems that continue to grow with the rapid decline in the number of coal-mining jobs in the mountains.
The elimination of hundreds of the best-paying jobs in the region has brought a “sense of urgency” to area residents, said Governor Beshear, and he is convinced many are willing to work together cooperatively and regionally. Let us hope so, but working together for the common good has never been a strength for the political leaders of this region. In fact, it has often been a glaring weakness.
In an attempt to extend the impact of the summit beyond a one-day event, a 41-member planning committee has been formed to use the ideas to issue reports and plan future meetings like Monday’s summit. While 41 members strike us as a bit unwieldy, the planning committee offers perhaps the best hope of actually implementing some of the ideas expressed Monday. Perhaps the committee would be most effective by dividing into subcommittees addressing specific issues like tourism, including hunting, adventure tourism, hiking, camping and golfing, economic development, education and use of the Internet.
In fact, Rogers borrowed a phrase that Jonathon Picklesimer used to create the Silicon Hollow Association in talking about the potential for creating high-speed Internet jobs in the region. Those are good jobs that do not require great highways and level land; all they need is access to the Internet and trained technicians.
One of the “big ideas” of the day was the establishment of a regional economic development fund, modeled on one in the iron mining region of Minnesota. That’s a great idea, but it could require economic development leaders in Hazard and Corbin to work with people in Pikeville and Prestonsburg to land employers that would not benefit their communities in the least. In the past, leaders in each community have only been interested in working to land jobs in their county and not the region as a whole. That needs to change if this region is going to reach its potential. We need to stop fighting against one another and work together for the common good.
Surprisingly, there wasn’t much talk about education, at least in terms of specific proposals. State House Speaker Greg Stumbo wore a UPIKE lapel pin, a symbol of his efforts to bring the private University of Pikeville into the public university system. However, efforts by Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, to make the University of Pikeville a state-supported college in many ways emphasizes the region’s inability to unite behind single projects. Both Morehead State University and Hazard Community and Technical College opposed creating a four-year state university in Pikeville.
And if one looks at the low level of education obtained by adults in many of the rural counties in this region, a greater case could be made for offering more adult education classes so residents can earn their GEDs. Without a high school degree, going to college is simply not possible. You can’t talk about the lack of good paying jobs in this region without also discussing the high number of adults without high school degrees, because the two go hand-in-hand.
There were more than a few skeptics on hand Monday, but both Beshear and Rogers said their voices are welcome and their ideas needed.
“I would throw that challenge back on the naysayers,” Beshear said. “They’ve got to be involved. They’ve got to step up. They’ve got to work with the rest of the region to make this happen, because in the end, these answers are going to bubble up from the people who live here.”
Even the views of members of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, which often is at odds with the coal industry, are welcome. “Everybody in this region is welcome to participate in this process because nobody has all the knowledge that we need or the ideas we need,” Beshear said. “We want every group to be part of this.”
Monday’s session hardly marks the first time an attempt has been made to promote the region, but Rogers said this time is different. He noted the bipartisan effort by a Republican congressman and Democratic governor — he termed it the “political odd couple” — and he said there is a greater sense of urgency than has existed previously.
Have times really gotten so bad in Eastern Kentucky that political adversaries are willing to put aside their differences and work for the common good? Count us among the skeptics, but we can always hope, can’t we?