SOAR summit set to address Eastern Kentucky's problems against backdrop of past failures

bestep@herald-leader.comDecember 7, 2013 

Barbara Church runs Oven Fork Mercantile in Letcher County. Church said business dropped 25 percent from a year ago after a nearby mining operation closed and miners no longer bought meals from her.

Bobby Napier had been a coal miner for 22 years before a Harlan County company laid him off in October.

Napier, who ran a machine that drove bolts to support the mine roof, went from making more than $900 a week to getting by on $415 a week in unemployment. At age 43, he doesn't want to leave his home in the mountainous county, but he is pondering whether he'll have to move to find work.

Napier said he knows what he would say to officials set to gather in Pikeville from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday for a summit aimed at finding ways to revitalize Eastern Kentucky's economy in the wake of the historic collapse of coal jobs the last two years. (Registration for the summit is closed.)

"The main thing is we need jobs — something in here that would put these people that's off work back to work," Napier said.

That's the idea underpinning an initiative called SOAR, for Shaping Our Appalachian Region. The meeting Monday is part of that effort, started by Republican U.S. Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers, whose 5th District includes the Eastern Kentucky coalfield, and Gov. Steve Beshear.

The two appointed a panel of more than 40 people — mostly business and education leaders — to help guide the process. The Rural Policy Research Institute is assisting.

People who attend the meeting will be able to submit suggestions for boosting the region's economy, and there will be panels on entrepreneurship, tourism, lifelong learning, investment in the region and other issues. More than 1,500 people have registered, Beshear's office said.

The summit is important, but it's a beginning, not the end, Rogers said.

It will take hard work and time to accomplish whatever recommendations it produces, the 17-term congressman said.

"I hope that it's the beginning of a long-term effort to revitalize the economy of that whole region," Rogers said.

Beshear said the structure to coordinate the next steps in the initiative will be worked out after comments are heard at Monday's summit.

Charles W. Fluharty, president of the rural-policy institute working with the steering committee, said he's been asked to produce a set of findings from the initiative by the end of the year to give to policymakers.

Fluharty said efforts to transform regions benefit from having some sort organization in place to shepherd the process, at least for a time.

The need for an economic rebirth in Eastern Kentucky is evident. Coal mines and facilities have laid off about 6,000 workers in the region since mid-2011, battering the economy.

The coal industry long dominated private-sector employment in the region, but there are fewer people working in the industry than at any time since the state started keeping records in 1927.

The layoffs have spread through the economy, hurting other businesses, and the downturn in production has cut tax revenue for state and local governments.

The region needed to revamp its economy even before those layoffs, however.

The poverty rate in Appalachian Kentucky from 2007 through 2011 averaged 24.8 percent — a level not much improved from 30 years earlier — and some counties were well over 30 percent, according to U.S. Census estimates.

That compared with a rate of 14.3 percent nationally and 18.1 percent for the state as a whole.

Groups have already put forth a number of suggestions for creating jobs in Eastern Kentucky in advance of the summit, including increased tourism development; expanded access to high-speed Internet service; reforestation projects on surface-mined land; weatherizing homes; more support for entrepreneurs; and road improvements.

In an editorial last week, Letcher County's newspaper, The Mountain Eagle, called on lawmakers to create public-works jobs immediately with a new version of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps.

"In Eastern Kentucky and most of the rest of Central Appalachia, we have a serious crisis on our hands," the newspaper said.

Others have said that while the region needs jobs quickly, policy makers also need to focus on improvements such as more rigorous education that could improve the long-term outlook for the region.

"We just simply have got to aspire to a more effective school system," said Al Smith, former co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Justin Maxson, president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, said he thinks there are plenty of ideas to improve Eastern Kentucky's economy.

The effort to put them in place must be broad-based, well-coordinated and sufficiently funded, he said, meaning the planning to do that will be as important as the plan itself.

"I think they have to put new money toward smart development strategies," Maxson said of state and federal governments.

Such spending could be another challenge, given tight state and federal budgets. Rogers is chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, but the mood among many in Washington is to spend less, not more.

There are suggestions on funding to address the economic downturn in the region, however.

Many would like to see a larger share of the state's coal-severance tax returned to the counties where the coal is produced, for instance.

Pike County Judge-Executive Wayne T. Rutherford and others also have suggested freeing up more than $2 billion being held to repair abandoned surface-mined land to use on other projects.

Smith said a lack of money could hinder whatever plan emerges from the SOAR initiative.

However, he pointed out that President Barack Obama promised help for regions affected by efforts to reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants.

Current and pending federal regulations to protect air and water quality are one factor in the downturn in coal production in Eastern Kentucky, though competition from natural gas, cheaper coal from other areas, and the high cost of production in an area where reserves have been depleted by a century of mining also play key roles.

Smith also noted that Kentucky has emerged as a national success story in the rollout of Obama's signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, with Beshear as the only governor in the Southeast to embrace the expansion in Medicaid.

That should work in the state's favor in seeking money to develop Eastern Kentucky, Smith said.

Fluharty said philanthropies also could play a key role in funding change in the region.

This is not the first time officials and citizens have tried to iron out a plan to improve Eastern Kentucky's economy.

Rutherford said that in preparing for the summit, he and staffers gathered all such plans and studies they could find. There were so many they had to bring a second table into his office to hold them, Rutherford said in a statement.

"The bottom line is that our county and our region have been studied out. The needs here are well-known and an untold fortune has been spent over the course of the last four decades for plan after plan," Rutherford said. "We know what we need, but we must bring everybody together to get it done, and we are hopeful that the SOAR summit will produce results toward that goal."

That history of plans that have sometimes accomplished little has caused doubt among some in the region that the SOAR initiative will result in much, and even some cynicism that it's little more than a charade.

Barbara Church said that she's an optimist, but that it will take results to convince her the effort is substantive. She has seen other planning efforts that ultimately didn't produce.

"I would have to see some action before I would believe anything would come out of the meeting," Church said. "I'm going to be skeptical until I see something happen."

Church operates Oven Fork Mercantile in Letcher County, which includes a bed and breakfast and sells antiques, collectibles and food.

The store, which incorporates a post office building dating to the 1920s, is on winding U.S. 119 at the base of Pine Mountain.

Church said she did a decent business selling meals to miners before a coal company closed a large complex nearby. Her business is down 25 percent from a year ago.

Rogers, Beshear and others, however, insist the SOAR initiative is different from past efforts, in part because the sharp spike in job losses has created a sense of urgency about diversifying the economy.

"This time I think I see a commitment over the long pull," Roger said. "The odds are tough ... but I'm optimistic about it."

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1

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