Politics & Government

Report calls for new approach to revitalize E. Ky.; $10 million set aside for high-speed Internet

U.S. Rep. "Hal" Rogers spoke at an event at Pine Mountain State Park to release a report from the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative, an effort to improve Eastern Kentucky's economy.
U.S. Rep. "Hal" Rogers spoke at an event at Pine Mountain State Park to release a report from the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative, an effort to improve Eastern Kentucky's economy.

PINEVILLE — The effort to diversify and revitalize Eastern Kentucky's battered economy needs a new guiding organization to organize the work, according to a report released Friday.

The report from the Rural Policy Research Institute synthesized hundreds of ideas submitted as part of an initiative called Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR.

Improved high-speed Internet service was one of the needs participants at the SOAR summit identified, and the federal budget approved by Congress this week includes money to address the problem.

As part of a $12 million budget increase for the Appalachian Regional Commission, Congress directed $10 million to broadband development in distressed counties affected by reductions in coal jobs, according to Earl F. Gohl, federal co-chair of the agency.

The budget language does not specify Eastern Kentucky, but it appears the region will be first in line for the money. Eastern Kentucky is home to the highest concentration of distressed counties in the multi-state ARC and has lost a greater percentage of its coal jobs than any region of the country the last two years.

U.S. Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers, whose 5th Congressional District includes most of Eastern Kentucky, is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and played a key role in crafting the new federal budget.

Rogers and Gov. Steve Beshear started the SOAR initiative as a way to kickstart a deeper examination of ways to improve the region's economy.

The coal industry has cut more than 6,000 of the best-paying jobs in Eastern Kentucky since 2011, causing job losses in other businesses as well and creating a sense of crisis.

An estimated 1,700 people attended a one-day summit in Pikeville in December as part of the SOAR effort, submitting hundreds of ideas on transforming the region's economy through new or expanded approaches in education, health care, tourism, agriculture and other sectors.

Rogers, a Republican, and Beshear, a Democrat, released the report on the summit Friday at a news conference at Pine Mountain State Resort Park in Bell County.

Rogers called the report a "chronicle of ideas" on how to shore up the economy in Eastern Kentucky.

"Our challenge as a region is to focus on solutions instead of problems," he told the 200 people who attended the event. "What we are looking for is a plan of action to get things done."

Rogers and Beshear said they will talk soon about one of the key recommendations in the report: setting up an organization to continue pushing the initiative, gather more ideas, look for money to put them in place and shepherd the work.

Beshear said he and Rogers will move quickly to come up with at least an initial structure.

"I certainly foresee some type of structure that continues on for several years. It can't stop in two years," Beshear said. "There are too many pieces of this puzzle that have to be put together, and it's gonna be a long-term process."

Most summit participants envisioned the SOAR initiative becoming a regional intermediary to work with citizens, government, the private sector and non-profit organizations on trying to boost the region. They saw money for that initiative as the greatest challenge, the report said.

"There is broad consensus that a funding base must be developed which is not affected by electoral outcomes or dependent upon political patronage," the report said.

The state once had an Eastern Kentucky-focused organization, called the Kentucky Appalachian Commission, but it did not survive a change of administrations in Frankfort in 2003.

One example of an organization that has lasted for decades and worked to revitalize a mining region — highlighted at the December meeting and in the report released Friday — was the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board in northeast Minnesota.

The board coordinated planning, investment and workforce training when the region's iron industry plummeted 30 years ago. The board, funded by a tax on mining, paid for public-works projects to cushion the immediate blow of job losses, then invested in longer-range efforts to attract new businesses.

Several regional leaders who attended Friday's news conference said only time will tell how much impact the SOAR initiative will have.

There are many question marks, including the availability of money for projects. Still, several said the process has already been a success by focusing attention on the difficulties facing Eastern Kentucky and improving the level of communication and collaboration across the region.

"SOAR's brought the region together," said Bell County Judge-Executive Albey Brock, a Republican. "It's highlighted our plight."

The greatest asset of the initiative right now is the "unparalleled regional good will that was generated by the willingness of political leadership to honestly engage new ideas and possibilities, by listening carefully to the region's people," the report said.

Authors of the report said the ideas generated so far would make for a dynamic future if the region can implement even a small percentage of them.

The suggestions covered a wide spectrum: weatherize houses to create jobs and cut electric bills; make recycling mandatory; train people to open businesses; expand farmers markets; build more trails for hikers and all-terrain vehicle riders; expand early-childhood education.

A number of people suggested improving the Mountain Parkway to four lanes for its entire length. Beshear already has moved on that, asking lawmakers to approve a $750 million, six-year project to widen the remaining two-lane section of the road, completing a four-lane link between Central Kentucky and Pikeville.

Beshear and Rogers pointed out that a number of other things have been announced, some since the Dec. 9 summit, that will complement the SOAR initiative.

One was the Obama administration's designation of eight counties in southeastern Kentucky as a Promise Zone, which will give them priority in competing for federal money for housing and other infrastructure, education, public safety and other needs.

And U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack attended Friday's news conference in Pineville to announce that 73 Kentucky counties had been added to the department's StrikeForce program, which targets financial aid to areas of poverty and lack of opportunity. Eastern Kentucky's coal counties are in the program.

Under the program, communities identify their needs, and then USDA works with them to figure out how to fund them, Vilsack said.

"This is a situation ... where success is guaranteed," Vilsack said.

More than a dozen school districts in the region also will benefit from $30 million in federal "Race to the Top" education funding.

One thing the SOAR initiative has made clear is that people understand there is a great need to diversify Eastern Kentucky's economy, and that no one approach will be sufficient, the report said.

"Eastern Kentucky is far too large, too sparsely settled, and lacking far too many critical regional wealth components to believe in a silver bullet," the report said.

People in the region appreciate the effort by Rogers and Beshear to drive change, but also fear that the same longstanding "rivalries, competitions, and political battles that have kept this region from capitalizing on a more innovative regional approach for decades will outlast this moment, and eventually destroy it," the report said.

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