HAZARD — With Eastern Kentucky stung by the loss of 6,000 coal jobs, U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers and Gov. Steve Beshear on Monday kicked off an effort to come up with ideas to boost the region's crippled economy.
The two announced a summit in Pikeville on Dec. 9 where residents may offer ideas for the region's future. The summit will be called SOAR, for Shaping Our Appalachian Region.
They also announced the creation of a planning committee of more than 40 leaders from the region who will come up with ideas and help plan the summit at Eastern Kentucky Exposition Center.
Beshear acknowledged there have been a variety of efforts dating back decades to draft plans for developing Appalachia's economy. If this new effort is to make a significant difference, Beshear said, the ideas for reviving the region's economy will have to be homegrown.
"For us to be successful, the people here are going to have to develop that road map for success," Beshear said during a news conference at Hazard Community and Technical College.
He also cautioned there were no "magic formulas" to quickly transform the region's economy.
Some committee members said there was reason to be optimistic about the planning effort, though, in part because of the urgency.
The Eastern Kentucky coal industry, facing challenges from cheap natural gas, high production costs and tougher environmental rules, has hemorrhaged jobs during the past two years. There are fewer miners working in Kentucky than at any time since the state began tracking coal employment in 1927, and nearly all the losses have come in Eastern Kentucky.
Many places in the region were ailing even before a steep drop in jobs during 2012.
The average poverty rate in Appalachian Kentucky from 2007 through 2011 was 24.8 percent, compared to a national rate of 14.3 percent, but the rate in some Eastern Kentucky counties was well above 30 percent, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission.
That has resulted in more fear because of the job losses.
"With the difficulties in the coal industry these days, a lot of people are despairing," Rogers said. "The battle for our neighbors is putting food on the table and heating the house this winter."
One committee member, Justin Maxson, cited several reasons to be optimistic the process would result in something significant: the breadth of expertise on the steering committee; the direct push by Rogers and Beshear; the public-private cooperation; and the recognition of a need to come up with a broad-based, long-term plan.
"I just think it's a unique collection of leaders in a time of desperation," said Maxson, president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development. "I think there's a lot of power in what we're about to see."
Most of the 41 committee members named Monday work in the private sector or in education or government, though there are some members from non-profit organizations.
Several committee members said it would take a multi faceted approach to improve the economy in Eastern Kentucky. They mentioned everything from small-business support and efforts to boost manufacturing to a widespread home energy-efficiency program.
Another committee member, former Gov. Paul Patton, commended Rogers and Beshear for tackling the crisis in Eastern Kentucky as a serious challenge.
"If anything can be done, they'll certainly try to get it done," Patton said.
He said the process needed to produce jobs quickly, but Beshear and Rogers did not announce any projects Monday.
Patton said any plan that emerged from the process ultimately would need funding to become a reality.
"It's gonna take resources," he said.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, identified one potential source of money to help boost the economy of the region, saying it was time to revise the distribution of money from the state's coal severance tax.
Much of the money now goes to the state.
However, Stumbo said he was working on a proposal to gradually return all the money to coal-producing counties. The plan would call for reducing the state's share by 10 percent each year for 10 years, until all the tax money generated by mining coal would go to coal counties.
Stumbo said he also advocates setting up regional commissions in the state's eastern and western coalfields to recommend development plans.
Those commissions would not have control of coal severance money.
Stumbo also said it was time for the state to re-emphasize its commitment to education, the key component of reviving Appalachian Kentucky's economy, he said.
"The target has to be a better-trained, better-educated workforce here in the mountains," he said.
The state has hired an organization, the Rural Policy Research Institute, to help guide the summit. The Appalachian Regional Commission and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development also will help in the planning effort.
It's been rare for 30 or 40 elected officials and business leaders from Eastern Kentucky to gather during the past couple of years without someone accusing the Obama administration of waging a "war on coal" with tougher standards to protect the environment and miners' safety.
No one said it Monday, however.
Rogers has been a strong critic of the administration and said he would continue fighting for coal. But, he said, Eastern Kentucky needed to embrace an economy defined by technology and innovation.
"Our best resources are a different energy source" than coal, Rogers said. "It's our people."
He said he hoped hundreds of people would attend the Dec. 9 summit.
"Today I think we celebrate the beginning of a new chapter of progress in southern and Eastern Kentucky," he said.
The kickoff for the planning effort was bipartisan. Rogers is a Republican and Beshear is a Democrat; Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, spoke along with Stumbo.
Patton said the effort came none too soon, noting that more than 30 power plants that buy Eastern Kentucky coal are slated to close within five years.
"The loss of coal jobs is not over," he said.
50 Years of Night
Read our ongoing series about the struggles of Eastern Kentucky in the 50 years since author Harry Caudill focused the nation on the region's problems when he published Night Comes to the Cumberlands. Find it at Kentucky.com/easternkentucky.