Tom Eblen: A 'missed opportunity' to improve the economy of Eastern Kentucky

Herald-Leader ColumnistMarch 25, 2014 

When Gov. Steve Beshear and Rep. Hal Rogers launched their Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) project last year, they promised it would be different.

They said SOAR would succeed in bringing economic vitality and diversity to long-troubled Eastern Kentucky, where so many past efforts have failed, because it would seek new ideas and leadership from a broader representation of the region's people.

So far, it isn't looking much different. Beshear and Rogers announced a leadership team Monday to guide the SOAR process. The list raised eyebrows not so much because of who was included as who was excluded, which was pretty much everybody outside Eastern Kentucky's establishment power structure.

"It was a missed opportunity, for sure," said Justin Maxson, president of the Berea-based Mountain Association for Community Development, which has been working on innovative economic development strategies in Central Appalachia since 1976.

Maxson would seem a logical choice for SOAR's 15-member executive committee or to chair one of its 10 working groups. But the only person with ties to MACED on the SOAR leadership team is Haley McCoy of Jackson Energy, an electric cooperative in Jackson County, who also happens to serve on MACED's board.

Maxson praised McCoy's selection, and that of SOAR's interim executive director, Chuck Fluharty, president of the Rural Policy Research Institute. "He understands that a region needs a diverse set of economic development strategies," Maxson said of Fluharty. "But it's unclear what his role will be."

If Beshear and Rogers really want new ideas, MACED would be a good place to look. "We're not afraid to say hard things," Maxson said. "Most of the solutions the region needs are not going to be easy."

Excluded from SOAR's leadership is anyone from Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a citizens group with more than 8,000 members statewide. KFTC has been working effectively in coal-dominated Eastern Kentucky since 1981.

"I'm trying to be nice about this, but everything they do, it seems like it's the same old, same old bunch," said Carl Shoupe of Harlan, a KFTC executive committee member. "We're a little bit too progressive for them, maybe."

In addition to McCoy, SOAR's executive committee, co-chaired by Beshear and Rogers, includes coal executive Jim Booth of Inez; Pikeville banker Jean Hale; Rodney Hitch of Winchester, economic development manager for East Kentucky Power; entrepreneur Jim Host of Lexington; Tom Hunter of Washington, D.C., retired executive director of the federal Appalachian Regional Commission; Ashland lawyer Kim McCann; and Bob Mitchell of Corbin, Rogers' former chief of staff and a board member of the Center for Rural Development that Rogers created in Somerset.

Four elected officials are ex-officio members: House Speaker Greg Stumbo of Floyd County; Senate President Robert Stivers of Clay County; and county judge-executives Albey Brock of Bell County and Doc Hardin of Magoffin County.

Former Gov. Paul Patton, 76, of Pikeville, leads the Futures Forum committee "responsible for framing and advancing the long-term vision of the region."

Among the 10 people appointed to chair working groups is Phil Osborne, a Lexington public relations executive. He chairs the Tourism, Including Natural Resources, Arts & Heritage group. Osborne is a talented marketing executive, but his appointment to head that group sends a strong message of its own.

Osborne was a key leader in Faces of Coal, the coal industry's multimillion-dollar propaganda campaign to block federal enforcement of environmental laws related to mining. The "war on coal" divisiveness that campaign fueled in the region is one of many obstacles SOAR must overcome.

In an interview, Shoupe of KFTC read key passages from the report by SOAR's consultant on takeaways from a public forum Dec. 9 in Pikeville, where more than 1,500 people gathered to launch the initiative:

"People appreciate the governor and congressman, but fear entrenched interests will wait them out. ... Folks want the dialogue deepened and broadened. ... Next generation leadership is essential. The young men and women of this region must feel a stronger sense of SOAR engagement than is currently evident, moving forward. Specific leadership attention to this dimension of governance and program design and delivery is so critical to SOAR's mission achievement."

"And what did they do?" Shoupe said of the leadership appointments. "They did everything backwards."

Maxson and Shoupe said they have been assured that SOAR working groups will listen to everyone's ideas and perspectives. That's not good enough, and Beshear and Rogers should know it.

If they want new ideas and the broad public support and credibility SOAR needs to succeed, they must be willing to give some seats at the decision-making table to people besides Eastern Kentucky's Old Guard. Otherwise, SOAR won't be any different than the failed efforts of the past.

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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