Beshear, Rogers announce leadership of SOAR initiative for Eastern Ky.

bestep@herald-leader.comMarch 24, 2014 

HAZARD — A panel of people with long experience in education, business and other fields will help guide an effort to expand and diversify Eastern Kentucky's beleaguered economy.

Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers announced Monday the executive committee of the Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR, initiative.

The two also announced the leaders of 10 work groups that will help identify development strategies in agriculture, business recruitment, health, tourism and other areas.

The goals for the initiative over the next few months include hiring a permanent executive director, holding a series of "listening sessions" so more people can help come up with plans to boost the economy, and a summit meeting in November.

Beshear, a Democrat, and Rogers, a Republican, pledged that SOAR will produce results, not just a series of meetings.

"We're gearing up to create quality jobs," Rogers said at a news conference in Hazard. "When you're talking about the future of our region, we want action."

However, the two said it was important to first create a structure to guide the effort. That was one key recommendation that came from the initial SOAR summit last December in Pikeville.

People at the summit submitted hundreds of potential ideas for developing the economy, highlighting the need for a body to organize the effort to come up with a development plan for Eastern Kentucky.

It was clear at Monday's news conference that people involved in the initiative are looking past the next few months. For instance, one goal of the working groups is to come up with three to five priority ideas to develop over the next three years.

In addition to the executive committee and the panels focused on particular areas, the effort includes a development committee to focus on raising money to pay for the initiative.

Beshear has asked lawmakers to approve $400,000 for SOAR over the next two years. He said Monday that he's optimistic that the legislature will include that money in the final state budget.

The leaders of the legislature — House Speaker Greg Stumbo and Senate President Robert Stivers — have been supportive of the initiative and are on the executive committee.

However, another key recommendation from the December summit is that the permanent structure of SOAR needs a source of money that doesn't depend entirely on government.

The development committee is led by Jean Hale, chairwoman, president and chief executive of Pikeville-based Community Trust Bank. The committee will try to get money from government, the private sector and philanthropies.

"A vision without funding is a hallucination," Rogers said.

However, there already are a number of proposals and programs to finance projects in the region, Beshear said.

The governor has asked for $750 million to upgrade the Mountain Parkway over the next six to 10 years and $60 million in bonding capacity to improve high-speed Internet service in Kentucky, beginning in the eastern end of the state. Rogers secured $10 million through the Appalachian Regional Commission for the broadband project in his district.

In January, President Obama announced eight counties in the region had been designated a Promise Zone, giving them priority for federal funding — something it also will receive through a separate U.S. Department of Agriculture program.

Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation also has set up a $2.6 million loan fund for 22 counties in the region.

The plan to continue SOAR comes at a time when a sharp downturn in the Eastern Kentucky coal industry has brought a feeling of crisis.

Coal companies have laid off about 7,000 miners and other employees since early 2012. That was nearly half their work force in Eastern Kentucky, and that doesn't count the impact of those layoffs on other businesses.

The Central Appalachian coal industry faces challenges from cheap natural gas, tougher environmental regulations and relatively high mining costs.

A lot of people in the region are hurting, but there are opportunities and reason for hope, leaders involved in the SOAR effort said.

"I see us overcoming a lot of hurdles over the next several years to come," said Pikeville city manager Donovan Blackburn, who will be managing director of the initiative.

Beshear and Rogers will co-chair the executive committee announced Monday. The other members are Hale; W. Bruce Ayers, who retired last year after more than 27 years as president of Southeast Community and Technical College in Harlan County; coal executive Jim Booth of Martin County, head of Booth Energy; Rodney Hitch, economic development manager for East Kentucky Power Cooperative in Winchester; Lexington businessman Jim Host; Tom Hunter, who retired recently as director of the Appalachian Regional Commission; Kim McCann, an attorney from Ashland; Haley McCoy, economic development advocate with Jackson Energy; and Bob Mitchell, who was Rogers' chief of staff for three decades before retiring in 2012.

The committee includes four representatives of state and local government: Stumbo, Stivers, Bell County Judge-Executive Albey Brock and Magoffin County Judge-Executive Charles "Doc" Hardin.

Chuck Fluharty, head of the Rural Policy Research Institute, will be interim executive director of the initiative.

The 10 areas in which committees will focus on developing strategies are agriculture and regional and local foods; broadband; business recruitment; business incubation; education and retraining; health; infrastructure; leadership development and youth engagement; regional collaboration and identity; and tourism, which is to include natural resources, arts and heritage.

Those committees are open to anyone. More information is available by calling (606) 444-5127 or (606) 437-5127.

The SOAR initiative includes a committee to plan and hold a "futures forum" in spring 2015 that will consider a long-term vision for Eastern Kentucky. Former Gov. Paul Patton heads that committee.

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

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