TheTimesTribune.com, Corbin, KY
By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service
As organizers kicked off a mountain summit here to discuss ways to diversify the eastern Kentucky economy, the dominant sentiment seemed to be a mixture of skepticism and hope.
More than 1,500 braved wet roads and fog to get to the East Kentucky Expo Center for the early morning sessions of SOAR (Shaping Our Appalachian Region), a region-wide planning exercise convened by Republican U.S. Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers and Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear.
But while Beshear, Rogers, state House Speaker Greg Stumbo and state Sen. President Robert Stivers all promised to “put politics aside” and to listen to all in the region, most in the crowd had a wait-and-see attitude tempered with optimism.
“We’re all going to have to work together,” said Lawrence County Judge/Executive John Osborne, whose county has been hit hard by the closing of the Kentucky Power Company’s Big Sandy electrical generator.
“If we don’t stop fighting each other, we won’t get anything done,” Osborne said, meaning the two political parties. He was hesitant, however, about working with environmentalist groups, who he said “don’t seem to work with us very much.”
State Sen. Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, said he’s hopeful but is also realistic because of limited public finances for such needed infrastructure as a four-lane highway and developed, flat land on which to locate industry.
“You can’t bring heavy industry to a region without interstate transportation and developable land,” Jones said.
The other component lacking in the region, Jones said, is a public, four-year university.
Stumbo has tried for the past two legislative sessions to bring the University of Pikeville, a private school, into the state system of public universities. But, in an era of budget cuts, including to higher education and the existing public universities, he’s been unable to muster enough support to pass such legislation.
Before the summit even began, Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies based in Whitesburg, wondered aloud and in an op-ed piece for the Lexington Herald-Leader if it was realistic to expect solutions from the same class of politicians and industry types who “got us here.”
But Davis also said the night before the summit that he is hopeful this time office-holders like Rogers and Beshear are sincere.
Beshear welcomed attendees Monday and told them the issues facing eastern Kentucky “aren’t political ones” but issues which hold back all of Kentucky, not just eastern Kentucky. He said organizers are “here to listen.”
Rogers and Stivers also said politics should be put aside in the search for common ideas to produce a brighter, long-term future for eastern Kentucky.
“We will blur the lines; we will put aside the politics,” Stivers said to applause from the crowd.
Still, some were doubtful.
Stanley Sturgill of Lynch, a member of the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, was arrested last year in Washington for refusing to leave Rogers’ House office when he and others sought an audience. He was also in a contingent of environmentalists who occupied Beshear’s office three years ago.
“I can’t understand a man arresting me one day for wanting to change things and then stand up in front of a crowd of 1,500 people and say he wants to do the same thing I wanted to do,” said Sturgill. “But I’m listening, and I’m optimistic. We’ll see.”
Sturgill hopes the 41-person planning committee made up of mostly business and industry representatives will listen to groups like KFTC as well.
“I’m hopeful they will,” Sturgill said. “But we’ve worked a lot in this area over the years, and so far, they haven’t listened to us a whole lot.”
But Beshear began the day saying, “We’re here to listen,” and there were group sessions scheduled for the afternoon organized around a variety of subjects and strategies.
Some were excited by experiences of the Minnesota iron range where the state returns two-thirds of mining taxes to the region. A trust fund was established in the 1970s which now totals $142 million, interest from which funds re-investment in the area.
But the mood remained of many remained doubtful.
“It’s been a lot of talk so far,” said state Rep. Rick Nelson, D-Middlesboro. “We’ll see.”
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.