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December 10, 2013

SOAR: Shaping Our Appalachian Region

Leaders ‘committed to the long haul’

JEFFERSONTOWN — 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.

    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.

    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 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.

    As for skeptics, Beshear and Rogers said their voices are welcome and their ideas needed.

    “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?

    “The concept is good,” McCreary County Judge Executive Doug Stephens said yesterday. “I don’t know if anything was accomplished except becoming a part of a network where communities can communicate.”

    Having been out of the coal industry for decades, Judge Stephens said McCreary County is ahead of the game in that local officials have already been talking about conference topics such as small business development, tourism and local food production.

    Local Community and Economic Development Director Susan Stephens noted that regionalization was also emphasized.

    “People are beginning to realize we have to blur these county lines,” she said.

    One idea which seems to have created the most stir: using coal severance tax funds to create a long-term development fund for the region.

    Those funds, which will continue to dwindle with fewer coal jobs, are already divided between state and county governments.

    L. Ray Moncrief, executive vice president and COO of Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation, said it will take more than just coal severance funds to establish an effective development fund.

    “It can’t be all public money,” Moncrief said. “It’s got to be public, private and philanthropic and it’s got to invest in businesses that are local to this area.”

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