Eastern Kentucky advocates want legislature to set up separate fund for region's development

MANCHESTER — An organization attempting to increase employment in Eastern Kentucky hopes legislators will set up a separate fund to aid development in the region.

Board members of Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR, voted Monday to back legislation in 2015 to create the Kentucky Appalachian Regional Development fund.

The legislation SOAR is proposing would create a structure for a regional development fund, including how to take and evaluate applications.

As proposed, SOAR would take applications for grants or loans from the fund and recommend whether to approve them. Final approval would come from the state Department for Local Government.

Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers started SOAR last year to gather ideas on how to diversify the economy of Eastern Kentucky, which has been battered by coal layoffs, and to come up with a plan and funding to put the ideas to work.

Under the proposal aired Monday, money from the fund could be used to support a wide range of projects, though applications would be judged in part by how they supported SOAR's objectives.

Jean Hale, who is on the organization's executive board, said the goal would be to build an endowment large enough to support development projects with the interest and investment growth, without dipping into the main pot of money.

But in the early years SOAR would have to use at least some of the fund to support projects, said Hale, president and chief executive officer of Community Trust Bancorp, which is based in Pikeville.

There have been earlier proposals for a permanent endowment to finance development in the region, funded with a set-aside from the state coal-severance tax.

The draft language in the bill presented Monday did not designate a set-aside from coal-severance money.

Justin Maxson, president of the Mountain Association for Community and Economic Development, said tying some coal-severance money to the initiative would be a good way to support the hard work of diversifying Eastern Kentucky's economy.

If the legislature approves the idea proposed by SOAR, the organization also could receive contributions from other sources such as companies and foundations for use with the development fund or separately.

One potential source of money to get the fund started would be $4 million the legislature already set aside from single-county coal-severance tax collections.

The money was designated for development projects in Eastern Kentucky, but hasn't yet been spent.

On other fronts Monday, committee members agreed on priorities for ideas to pursue in 2015 from among the hundreds of development ideas submitted by Eastern Kentucky residents.

The broad goals are to build the capacity to recruit, retain and expand businesses; support entrepreneurs in a number of fields; prepare residents for jobs in the global economy; and be a vehicle for investments that provide an economic return.

The committee signed off on some priorities within those areas, such as trying to boost the number of computer-coding classes.

Rogers and Beshear said the committee has made good progress on identifying ways to boost the economy, but cautioned there won't be a quick turnaround.

"Twenty years from now we'll still be working on these kinds of things," Beshear said.

Rogers said he is researching the idea of legislation to create federal tax credits to help businesses create jobs.

SOAR executive director Jared Arnett announced the organization will host a summit Feb. 16 in Pikeville.

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