Roy Silver: Two percent alone can't lift SOAR off the ground

December 9, 2013 

Roy Silver of Benham is a professor of sociology at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College.

Almost 20 years ago, then-Gov. Brereton Jones created the Kentucky Appalachian Commission. It was populated by diverse groups of citizens and embraced a participatory, democratic process that served as a model for how to gather, percolate and circulate ideas.

Under Gov. Paul Patton, political patronage began to dominate the commission, which Gov. Ernie Fletcher eventually abolished.

The region has lacked similar commitments to democratic, participatory processes.

A press release describes the Shaping Our Appalachian Region summit as "citizen-driven." But, as the Herald-Leader pointed out in an Oct. 30 editorial, the SOAR planning committee is top heavy with the top 2 percent of Eastern Kentucky's political-economic pyramid.

SOAR will have to overcome the cynicism of the other 98 percent by immediately diversifying and establishing an inclusive, participatory structure that is operational from planning through execution.

State Senate President Robert Stivers calls for thinking "outside the box." This is fundamental because the box has proven noxious and suffocating for too many.

The Harlan County box is a microcosm of our region. Sixty percent of our households have an annual income of less than $35,000, much worse than the 41.8 percent of Kentucky and 31.5 percent of U.S. households earning less than $35,000.

Visioning a better life must address inequality and be grounded in creating jobs that will sustain family, community and our environment. Elevating educational achievement is critical. A recent study by testing firm ETS concluded: "Children growing up in poverty complete less schooling, work and earn less as adults, are more likely to receive public assistance and have poorer health."

The work ethic of Eastern Kentuckians, our natural beauty and the bounty that nature provides give us a great foundation for building a new economy and will allow us to expand our ecotourism and cultural heritage tourism.

Within Eastern Kentucky, both short- and long-term solutions abound. The principles that inform sustainable community development are outlined in Take Back The Economy, required reading for all those engaged in community development.

Kentucky has among the country's lowest electric utility rates and highest consumption rates. Our older housing stock means that our energy dollars are literally escaping through the cracks. Public-private partnerships can train thousands to make our homes and businesses more energy efficient, provide us with more disposable income and reduce our carbon footprint. Retrofitting homes and businesses is the low-hanging fruit of economic development.

Also, creating a permanent trust fund, drawn from severance tax revenues and private and public dollars, is essential to long-term development. This fund could be used to nurture the arts and community development.

Roy Silver of Benham is a professor of sociology at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College.

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