SLADE — There were 13,000 fewer people working in a 23-county area in Eastern Kentucky's coalfield in May 2014 than a year earlier.
That sobering statistic brought sharp focus to the challenge facing the initiative called Shaping Our Appalachian Region as its executive committee met Tuesday to hear ideas aimed at boosting the region.
"Somehow we have to create opportunity" to re-train people and put them to work, said W. Bruce Ayers, president emeritus of Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College and a member of the executive committee. That is one measure by which the initiative will be judged, Ayers said.
Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep Hal Rogers started SOAR last year to gather ideas on how to diversify the economy and improve the quality of life in Eastern Kentucky, and to come up with a plan and funding to put the ideas to work.
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The region has been battered by the loss of half of its coal-industry jobs since early 2012.
Beshear said working groups held a series of more than 100 community meetings through the summer, attended by more than 2,500 people. Participants suggested hundreds of ideas in areas that included agriculture, tourism, education, health and business development.
The working groups were charged with prioritizing three to five recommendations to get started on over the next year, with others to be rolled out later.
The groups made their presentations Tuesday to the executive committee at a meeting at Natural Bridge State Resort Park.
The ideas prioritized by the working groups included development of systems to connect small farmers with local and regional markets, and small loans to help farmers; a tax-incentive program tailored to Eastern Kentucky to try to attract jobs; and setting aside money from the coal severance tax for a permanent endowment.
Among other things, the committees also recommended pushing a statewide ban on smoking indoors in public; asking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study poor health in the region and the emerging research on a correlation between mountaintop mining and health problems; creating an economic development organization specific to the region; creating county coalitions to involve young people; promoting a home-weatherization program offered by the Mountain Association for Community and Economic Development; raising the threshold at which the state's prevailing wage law applies to projects; and more funding for tourism marketing.
The committees recommended more study on a number of fronts, such as the region's transportation network and workforce needs.
But participants said they are determined the initiative won't produce only reports and studies, as some previous planning efforts did.
"We're looking for real change, real diversification," Rogers said.
On that front, Rogers announced that the CDC has designated a senior staff member to work in Kentucky to advise health departments and others on tackling the high rates of heart disease and other health problems in Eastern Kentucky.
The challenge now will be to sift through the ideas presented Tuesday and target the most promising, Beshear said.
The executive committee will do that in coming weeks with hopes of releasing a plan for 2015 at a regional meeting in November.
"It'll be tough, but we can do it," Beshear said of picking priorities. "We're gonna dig right in and come up with some short-term gains we can make."
Some of the ideas discussed Tuesday wouldn't require money, but some would.
A development committee is looking at ways to raise money for the initiative from public, private and philanthropic sources.
The initiative had less than $1,000 when the meeting started, according to the treasurer's report, but during the meeting the executive committee approved a measure under which it will receive $400,000 this fiscal year and next year, as approved by the legislature.
In addition, Earl F. Gohl, federal co-chairman of the Appalachian Regional Commission, announced up to $750,000 in funding for SOAR administration over the next four years.
The need to raise money for the initiative remains, however.
To that end, the board approved a corporate sponsorship program so that businesses can pay for the right to use the SOAR brand in marketing.
Lexington businessman Jim Host said the program will bring in at least $500,000 annually.
Host also reported that a committee has completed interviews for an executive director for SOAR and has chosen two for the full board to consider. The names were not released.