PIKEVILLE — Jim Ratliff is a glimmer of what could be possible to diversify jobs in Eastern Kentucky, a region hurt by a sharp downturn in the coal industry that long underpinned the economy.
Ratliff, 37, is one of several former coal-industry employees learning how to write computer code at a software and web development company called Bit Source, which started in March in an old Coca-Cola bottling plant the company converted for its offices in Pikeville.
Ratliff worked for 14 years as a blaster at surface mines before he was laid off in September. The transition to sitting in an office learning computer coding has been challenging, but he's glad for the opportunity.
Just last week, a coal company offered him a job. He turned it down, unconvinced the industry would make a sustained comeback in the region.
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"I see the potential for the longevity of this," Ratliff said of computer work.
Computer coding is one of the potential opportunities for Eastern Kentucky identified through the Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR, initiative, which held its second summit meeting Monday in Pikeville.
Charles "Rusty" Justice, who started Bit Source with M. Lynn Parrish, said the idea for the company came through the SOAR process.
There were a lot of other ideas on the table at the daylong SOAR meeting, including efforts to create jobs through expanded local food production, help for entrepreneurs, increased efforts to attract jobs and better region-wide planning.
Jared Arnett, SOAR's executive director, said 1,250 people had pre-registered to attend the summit.
Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers and Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, started SOAR in fall 2013 because of steep slide in the coal industry.
The number of coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky has plunged by half in recent years as the industry struggles with competition from cheap natural gas and from coal mined elsewhere in the country, tougher federal rules to protect air and water quality, and the depletion of easy-to-reach reserves.
The initiative included an effort to gather hundreds of ideas on how to diversify the region's economy and improve the quality of life.
Arnett said Monday's meeting was intended to help push high-priority ideas from that list into practice.
Arnett said the initiative has been successful in breaking down political barriers that historically worked against the kind of regional cooperation needed to foster development.
"SOAR's a catalyst to change all that, to change the divisions that have been here for a long time, and that in turn will result in job growth, community growth all throughout the region," Arnett said.
Improved high-speed Internet service to the region is one of the priorities of the initiative.
The state is negotiating a contract with a private company that will build a high-speed Internet network throughout the state, beginning in Eastern Kentucky, to improve speeds that lag far behind the nation and world in places.
The legislature authorized $30 million in bonds for the project and the Appalachian Regional Commission contributed $15 million.
The project could give companies like Bit Source improved ability to compete.
"I think long-term, broadband — high-speed, high-capacity cable — is a transformational change," Rogers said at the meeting in Pikeville, "because it gives us a chance in Eastern Kentucky to do the work that we formerly had to move to do, to do that here at home."
The response to Bit Source's search for employees showed the hunger for jobs. Almost 900 people applied for the company's training slots in less than two months, said Michael Cornett, who is with the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program.
The initial training class is 10 people, nine of them former coal-industry workers. The employment program recruited them for Bit Source and is paying their wages during the training period, using a federal Department of Labor grant the program administers.
Ratliff and the nine others are in the eighth week of a 22-week training program.
Federal Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez toured Bit Source on Monday and also attended the SOAR summit, where he announced the Obama administration had set aside up to $35.5 million for Eastern Kentucky and other places where changes in the coal and utility industries have caused economic hardships.
The program will award money aimed at projects to diversify local and regional economies, including coming up with development plans and training workers.
Eastern Kentucky will have to compete with other places for grants, but officials have said the region will be a strong candidate.
Perez said work SOAR has done to come up with strategies and promote collaboration was one inspiration for the program, called the POWER initiative, for Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization.
"You've done a lot of groundwork-laying around here," Perez said during a speech at the SOAR summit.
The Department of Labor said communities could begin applying for money as of Monday.
There are not a lot of jobs yet that could be traced directly to the SOAR initiative. But Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley said he's convinced the initiative has great potential.
Mosley said he understood that people wanted quick results, especially given how many are out of work, but building a new economy in Eastern Kentucky will take time.
"Transformation of a region that's relied on one economy for a hundred years is going to take more than a year," Mosley said.