First in a series of columns leading up to Monday's second summit of Shaping Our Appalachian Region, to be held in Pikeville.
I'm a son of the mountains. I've worked in the counties of the SOAR region for most of my professional career, and I know that this place is more than home for me. Eastern Kentucky is where I want to be, work, worship and raise my family. It's more than a sense of place — for me, it's the only place.
I'm glad I'm not alone. Having worked with leaders from throughout the region, I have been most encouraged by the local leadership I see taking hold in renewed commitments to overcome our region's obstacles thanks to SOAR. These renewed convictions are about fighting for families and not for turf — a shared sense of belonging in a region that has for so long been divided.
In December 2013, I was one of the 1,700 people who came to the East Kentucky Exposition Center, curious about how I could support this new effort. I showed up that snowy day to find out what I could do for SOAR, not what SOAR could do for me.
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After serving on the job creation and retention panel chaired by former Gov. Paul E. Patton, I was intrigued by what I was hearing and seeing. Regular Kentuckians from all over the region, with all kinds of backgrounds traveled through the snow and ice to listen to each other's dreams for their hometowns. It was different from any public meeting I had ever seen. I left that day cautiously optimistic about SOAR and reinvigorated about my own commitment to make our region better.
I wanted to stay close to SOAR as it took flight. Soon after the summit, I was invited to chair the working group on business incubation, which meant holding listening sessions with the public about supporting businesses and entrepreneurs.
These meetings were incredibly helpful in crafting a report of recommendations to the SOAR executive board. As other reports came in from other working groups, it became clear that we were developing real momentum.
People were excited and engaged about the goals we were recommending and the strategies to accomplish them.
I was excited about these goals, too. So I began to seriously consider the position of SOAR executive director. I knew this position would come with major responsibility, unparalleled expectations and limited resources.
What I first saw as a challenge transformed into a historic opportunity. Not for myself, but for our region. I was honored and humbled to be named as the founding executive director.
While federal and state partnerships will be important for the region's future growth, no level of investment can compensate for a lack of collective ownership by those who live and work in our communities every day. SOAR's credibility has grown because of its grass-roots involvement and it will only succeed by holding true to those roots.
This Monday, based on recommendations from the region through our working group listening sessions, we will share best practices on regional approaches to growth and development, but most importantly we will inspire local commitments to carry out the tremendously important work of SOAR.
At the end of the day, SOAR is about a shared vision that will inspire systemic change in our region's approach to growth and development.
This summit is about inspiring local actions that will align with the working groups' regional strategies and enable SOAR to continue to support our region's ability to create our own future. I hope you'll join me in the journey.
To register for the summit or to read the working groups' reports, go to Soar-ky.org.