E. Ky. summit can spark revival: Beshear, Rogers launch vital discussion


Inviting hundreds of people to share their ideas for Eastern Kentucky's future at a Dec. 9 summit in Pikeville is a great idea.

It will help satisfy the widespread yearning and sense of urgency to start building a stronger economy while reassuring people that the state's top elected officials care about the mountains' plight.

The summit invitation comes from a powerful bipartisan pair, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and the region's U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

The summit also has the support of legislative leaders from both parties. All of that tells us there might be some funding to put behind the good ideas that will be generated.

The tone at the Monday press conference announcing the endeavor also was encouraging. As the Herald-Leader's Bill Estep reports, the event was refreshingly free of the "war on coal" rhetoric that has grown so wearisome and stale.

Instead, there were calls for change, new ways of thinking, out-of-the box ideas and solutions that in Beshear's words must be "driven and championed by the individuals who call Appalachia home." Good, good and better.

The Rural Policy Research Institute — a joint program of Iowa State University, the University of Missouri and the University of Nebraska based in Columbia, Mo. — has been hired to facilitate what Beshear's office says is the summit's goal: "Gathering the many disparate voices of Appalachia and merging their ideas into a cohesive strategy for the region's success."

Unfortunately, the 41-member planning committee that has been appointed to suggest discussion topics and possible goals fails to reflect the region's diversity, disparate voices or even its geography.

The committee is made up largely of bankers, college and university presidents and business people with connections to the coal industry.

Eight of the 41 members, nearly 20 percent, are from Pikeville while none hail from Bell, Clay or Letcher counties.

We understand the need to get bankers and the business community on board because any economic retooling will require private investment and public-private partnerships.

But no one on the committee comes from agriculture; forestry; mountain-based tech companies; Appalshop, the successful media, arts, education center in Whitesburg, or the Center for Rural Strategies, based in Whitesburg and Knoxville.

There's no one from Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the grass-roots group that has a long history of advocating for the mountains and last spring hosted a regional conference on how rural and coal-dependent places in other parts of the world have made economic transitions.

Beshear and Rogers should diversify the planning committee's old-guard membership to instill more creative thinking into the agenda.

More important, groups and individuals who have ideas must make sure they're heard.

Beshear and Rogers are creating a forum in which those who care about the region can be heard and also listen to others who care. Kentucky has needed that for a long time.

The decline of the coal industry, which has shed more than 6,000 jobs in the last two years, has driven even the comfortable to acknowledge the need for change.

What's been done in the past isn't working — that should be clear. Change is hard but it's also inevitable. The results are better when the people most directly affected by that change shape it along with their futures.

We encourage those most directly affected to speak out and sign up for the Shaping Our Appalachian Region or SOAR summit at https://kydlgweb.ky.gov/.

Ideas for jobs?

What kind of economic development should state leaders push for Eastern Kentucky? Tell us at Kentucky.com/opinions.