PINEVILLE — Two federal agencies announced $1.3 million in funding Monday to help support an effort to expand and diversify Eastern Kentucky's beleaguered economy.
Of that, $312,000 from the U.S. Economic Development Administration will help pay for technical assistance to the Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR, initiative, according to a news release from U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers and Gov. Steve Beshear.
The additional $1 million is from the Corporation for National and Community Service, which will finance the work of 52 AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers in the region to help with job training and placement, student achievement, financial counseling for families and other services.
Officials announced the grants during a meeting of the SOAR executive committee in Pineville.
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Rogers and Beshear started the initiative last year to gather ideas on how to improve the economy and quality of life in Eastern Kentucky, and to come up with a plan and funding to put the ideas to work.
The region has been battered by the loss of half of its coal-industry jobs since early 2012.
Jay Williams, head of the federal Economic Development Administration, told those at the meeting that Youngstown, Ohio, where he had been the mayor, suffered a similar collapse in the late 1970s in the steel industry, which had defined the region's economy for decades, just as coal has in Eastern Kentucky.
The population plummeted, crime rose and the community "absolutely collapsed," Williams said. But Youngstown ultimately began a process similar to the SOAR initiative, soliciting ideas from the community about how to redefine its economy, he said.
The process required making hard choices, Williams said, including accepting that the city would be a different place, changing the economy to align with global and regional opportunities, and coming up with a locally driven, achievable plan.
In the end, the city went from a place known for high crime and other problems to being named one of the 10 best places to start a new business, Williams said.
He cautioned that transforming a regional economy was a long process — something that Rogers, Beshear and others have asked people in Eastern Kentucky to keep in mind as well.
The SOAR initiative is making progress, several committee members reported Monday.
Working groups focused on several subject areas — agriculture, tourism and health care, among others — have had a number of meetings to solicit ideas and discuss challenges, and have more scheduled.
Participants have discussed a wide range of ideas, committee leaders said, including increased cattle production on surface-mined sites, more help and training for entrepreneurs, school wellness clubs, suspension of prevailing-wage rules in the region, and special tax incentives to recruit jobs.
The committees are supposed to sift through the ideas and come up with what they consider the most promising, then bring those to the executive committee this year to consider as part of a larger development plan.
One initiative already underway is a project to bring expanded high-speed Internet service to the region. Beshear and Rogers announced the plan this year to build about 3,000 miles of fiber-optic infrastructure around the state, starting in Eastern Kentucky.
The initial funding for the project includes $30 million in state bonds, $20 million in federal money and $20 million from the private sector.
Kentucky now ranks 46th in broadband availability, and 23 percent of rural areas do not have access to broadband.
Cities and counties without such service won't be able to attract many companies, said Larry Combs, who works for the Center for Rural Development.
"You might as well say you don't have water," he said.
Mary Lassiter, secretary of the governor's executive cabinet, told the SOAR participants that once a private partner as identified, the project would move quickly.
Rogers said the combination of high-speed Internet service, a relatively low wage scale and good workers would give Eastern Kentucky a competitive edge.
"I think it can revolutionize our part of the country," he said.
Also during the meeting, Rogers announced that SOAR would host a visit by Dr. Thomas Frieden, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in August. It will be the first time the head of the CDC has come to Eastern Kentucky, according to a news release.
Rogers said the tour would help focus attention on the region's high rates of health problems, including cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
Frieden is scheduled to take part in several meetings that will be open to the public.