SOAR, the newest initiative to figure out what in the world to do about the economy in Appalachian Kentucky, is certainly starting out with a bang. At last count, more than 1,500 people had signed up for today's gathering in Pikeville.
I really want to be excited. And I am always optimistic. After all, it's only when we lose hope that we truly lose.
But this isn't the first time the powers that be have pulled together a group of "white guys in ties" — a description that fits 85 percent of the steering committee — to plan our future. And multiple iterations later, here we are. Still the poorest and unhealthiest region in our nation.
But there is always that hope, and perhaps this time we can really explore some promising new options, many that are already starting to work after years of relentless, hard and quiet work by the people who simply live in the mountains.
As an example, Perry County, smack in the middle of the coalfield, is not considered economically distressed for the first time ever by the Appalachian Regional Commission. I'm sure there are many opinions about why that is, but I believe it is because for the past 25 years, the people of Perry County have been making real investments in the kinds of infrastructure that build communities where families can begin to thrive.
We have created an early-childhood education system to serve children from birth to 5 with partnerships among private child care providers, public schools and Head Start. We are addressing our housing needs through shelter, rental and home ownership opportunities. We have true access to health care with more doctors and medical providers than most urban centers. Our public school systems are facing painful truths about changes that have to be made, and they are making them. We have more people from all walks of life coming together to contribute their time, talent and money to local initiatives for local change. We are behaving like a community. And it is beginning to matter.
Work-force development starts with preschool. Infrastructure includes parks, trails, cultural enrichment and a clean environment that nurtures and encourages healthy lifestyle choices. While a reasonable amount of public resources have to be allocated to support much of this infrastructure, local people need to decide what kind of community they want, and then make the investments of time, talent and treasure to build it.
The Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, a community foundation started by the people of Perry County to support local investment in the region, gives people the opportunity to make those investments with the confidence that they will endure. Much money was made in these coalfields by people who care deeply about our future. Providing them with a responsible and transparent institution with a clear path to a better future for our children and families ensures that some of that money can stay in the region. Any true conversation about an economic transition needs to include this kind of philanthropic investment.
Investing is something people do early for big gains later on. The SOAR announcement came with great fanfare about how "people are our greatest resource." If we believe that, we need to stop spending money on sweeping initiatives and projects in two- and three-year stints and begin investing in our people and our communities for the long haul.
Gerry Roll of Busy is executive director of the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky.