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December 10, 2013

SOAR Summit

Leaders say they’re ‘committed to the long haul’

CORBIN — By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service

So many want it to work.

Many are excited, hopeful. Others want to be hopeful but feel like they’ve had hopes dashed in the past.

More than 1,700 gathered Monday for the Shaping Our Appalachian Region — SOAR — Summit, convened by Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers. Both repeatedly emphasized the day-long brainstorming session “is just a beginning” and there “are no silver bullets” to solve the region’s desperate economic and employment picture.

Beshear said he thinks the people of the region “feel a sense of urgency” and are ready to work cooperatively and regionally.

“The congressman and I are committed to the long haul,” Beshear said. “We’re also committed to some big, broad issues.”

Indeed, the “big ideas” of the day seemed to be the establishment of a regional economic development fund, modeled on one in the iron mining region of Minnesota; creation of a reliable, high-speed broadband Internet network; and expanding to four lanes the entirety of the Mountain Parkway. The parkway is four lanes from Winchester to Campton but then splits into two separate two lane highways, one toward Prestonsburg and Pikeville, the other toward Hazard.

When the long day ended, Beshear said he planned to seek funding in the next state budget for the administrative costs of a continuing planning group for eastern Kentucky and various “projects,” including for the Mountain Parkway.

Rogers said he expects the ideas gathered at Monday’s summit to be used by the 41-person planning committee to issue reports and another meeting like Monday’s is likely in the future.

He also made clear he wants to turn the region into an area of new, Internet-based jobs, calling it the ideal “Silicon Holler.”

“The governor and I see foresee a major broadband highway stretching across this region and connecting to the national grid,” Rogers said.

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.

Stumbo said during the open session the region suffers from a lack of a major four-lane highway and the lack of a four-year public university.

But most of the talk during the day about education was in broad strokes: the need to offer retraining for the unemployed and opportunities to keep young people from leaving the region after graduation, to stop the “brain drain” from eastern Kentucky.

As for skeptics, 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.”

Both said the coal industry is supportive, its leaders understanding the industry can no longer provide the employment it once did.

Both said they’re willing to work with groups with which they’ve had uneasy relationships such as the environmental and economic justice advocacy group The Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.

“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.”

Still the question hung in the air — will it make a difference?

Justin Maxson, president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development located in Berea and a member of the SOAR planning group, said he was encouraged political and business leaders called for the conversation but he isn’t certain the conversation was altogether the needed one.

“It’s not an idea problem,” Maxson said. “It’s a political problem and we haven’t had the conversation we need to. It’s got to move beyond just listening to change.”

State Rep. Tim Couch, R-Hyden, seemed to agree.

“It’s good,” Couch said of the day’s discussions. “But it’s fine to talk — we’ve got to DO something.”

Rogers said this time is indeed different. He noted the bi-partisan 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.

RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.

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