SOMERSET — On Thursday, 50 years after President Lyndon B. Johnson came to Eastern Kentucky to promote an ambitious war on poverty, several hundred people from the region met to discuss ideas aimed at boosting the region, which has been battered by coal layoffs and still has pockets of poverty far above the national rate.
The occasion was the first meeting of the 10 working groups of the Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR, initiative.
The groups plan to hold a series of meetings this spring and summer where people can submit ideas for improving the economy and quality of life in the region, then sift the suggestions and recommend strategies to pursue.
There have been plenty of efforts to come up with development plans for the region since Johnson came to Martin County on April 24, 1964, and talked with Tom Fletcher, an unemployed sawmill worker, on the porch of his hillside house as Johnson pressed for major increases in anti-poverty spending.
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Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, who started the SOAR initiative last year, and others involved in the effort said they're determined that it will produce results, and not just another report to be filed away.
"I think we're all sick of that," Nikki Stone, a Hazard dentist who leads one of the SOAR working groups, said of reports that don't bear fruit.
Stone said she is optimistic SOAR will accomplish more. Reasons to be hopeful, she said, are the bipartisan backing of Rogers, a Republican, and Beshear, a Democrat; growing collaboration in the region; and increased awareness of the need for changes.
If the committee meetings Thursday were any indication, there will be no shortage of ideas on ways to try to improve the economy in Eastern Kentucky.
The working groups met as part of the East Kentucky Leadership Conference, which is holding its annual meeting in Somerset at the Center for Rural Development.
The SOAR committees focus on subject areas such as tourism, education, health care, business recruitment and agriculture.
The work began Thursday with participants identifying strengths and weaknesses.
Eastern Kentucky has great cultural and natural resources, for instance, but there aren't enough places to stay, and the region needs to do a better job of cataloging its assets, promoting visitation regionally, and cleaning up a bit, people in one work group said.
"There is a huge opportunity for bringing in more tourism," said Nancy Hamann, who has a cabin-rental business in the Red River Gorge.
People in another committee said that there is significant opportunity for agriculture to have a greater economic impact in Eastern Kentucky, but that it will take investment, marketing, better coordination and more production to make that a reality.
"We gotta get the basic production up," said Mark Reese, a former University of Kentucky agriculture extension agent.
Even with the history of ideas to boost Eastern Kentucky, new ones emerged during the discussion Thursday, said Stone, who leads the working group on health care.
One suggestion, for example, was to market the region as a retirement destination because it has natural beauty and a good health-care system, Stone said.
Ron Crouch, director of research and statistics at the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, told people at the conference that despite the spike in coal layoffs over the last two years in Eastern Kentucky, the economic picture is not all bad.
The level of educational attainment in the region has gone up, for instance, creating opportunities in professional services, and with the population growing older, there will be more jobs in health care, he said.
"Health care's gonna be the new growth industry," he said.
The region needs a better-educated workforce, however, and higher workforce participation, Crouch said.
In a speech at the conference, Beshear said he and Rogers intend for the SOAR effort to produce long-lasting results, but he said it will rise or fall on the efforts of people in the region.
He urged people to attend the meetings of working groups that will be held in the next few months.
"The real challenge is to sustain it," Beshear said. "You will dictate both whether SOAR is a success and whether that success is durable."
The working groups are to finish taking suggestions and produce reports by September. The website for the initiative will be ready soon, but until it is, information is available here.