"When's the best time to plant a tree? Forty years ago. The second best time? Now."
That saying was repeated by Joseph Sertich to the nearly 2,000 attendees at the Dec. 9 Shaping Our Appalachian Region summit in Pikeville. Sertich, a career educator, business consultant and son-of-a-son-of-an-iron miner from the Iron Range of rural northeastern Minnesota, presented at the event alongside his son, Tony, commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.
The pair's presentation leaned heavily toward the activities of the IRRRB, a state-run development agency that promotes and invests in business, community and workforce development in the region. Its collaborative efforts with the public sector, education, tourism and private business have helped the Iron Range slowly recover and prosper after the iron industry crashed and left thousands of miners out of work.
Their purpose was to remind Eastern Kentuckians that we are not alone, and that it is possible for a rural region like ours to eventually recover from the overwhelming collapse of the coal industry if the public sector and private sector commit to working together — with the aid of government at all levels — to make it happen.
Yes, the IRRRB had a 70-year jump on SOAR. Minnesota leaders back then wisely foretold iron's depletion and crash somewhere in the neighborhood of 2002, so they started planning and investing decades ago to spur new industries and opportunities that now power the region.
SOAR is our start of such an effort. It represents our collectively "planting a tree."
SOAR also is a put-up-or-shut-up earth-shaking revelation for all of us Eastern Kentucky citizens and workers, and for political and business leaders at the local, state, regional, and national levels. If Eastern Kentucky is to survive, we all had better start seriously digging in and working for it.
We need immediate help for the thousands of miners who have lost their jobs. Some may have to retrain, re-educate or change careers, even relocate, to financially survive. But we simultaneously need to be working together to bring in manufacturing opportunities and other mass employment that can constitute an alternative workforce and give these workers a chance to return home when conditions are favorable. We also need to be examining what our region is truly going to become 20 years down the road and beyond.
Will manufacturing drive the new economy? Tourism? Telework? Small business and innovative entrepreneurship? Agriculture? Biomass, solar energy or other emerging alternative energy sources? Or still yet, coal on some scale that's perhaps driven more by exports?
It's all of the above. And none of these individual facets will succeed on the scale needed to shape our Appalachian region unless — as Joseph and Tony Sertich suggested — all of them are involved. We must all strive together as one Eastern Kentucky with a unified voice and plan. County lines must be blurred and small-time, shortsighted political territorialism ignored and left behind.
In this age of the online bully pulpit, it is easier than ever to complain and blame politicians and others for what they've done or haven't done to lead us where we are. It's also easy to scoff at genuine efforts like SOAR as just more lip service.
It's easier still to do nothing and let negativity and hopelessness swallow families, neighborhoods, workplaces, communities and eventually the whole region.
I refuse to let that happen, and I refuse to believe we're as jaded as those who complain most loudly and often would suggest. As Eastern Kentuckians, we're better people than that. Our willpower, work ethic, heart, spirit and heritage make us among the best people on the face of the planet.
Though we may all have different ideas on how to move forward, it's time to get together as one, roll up our sleeves, get our hands in the dirt, and, metaphorically, start planting some trees, preferably a variety of many different kinds.
I'm ready and willing. Are you?
EKCEP administers the Hiring Our Miners Everyday jobs and training initiative for laid-off coal miners and their spouses in 23 Appalachian coalfield counties. Find out more at www.jobsight.org and www.facebook.com/ekcep. Email Cornett at email@example.com.
Michael Cornett is director of agency expansion and public relations for the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, Inc. in Hazard.