SOAR changed the conversation

Like many, we have high hopes that SOAR will live up to its name.

But even if it sputters, Democrat Steve Beshear and Republican Hal Rogers have done Eastern Kentucky a huge favor by making it safe to talk about something other than coal.

For that, all Kentuckians should be grateful.

Under normal circumstances, changing the subject wouldn't be such a big deal. But in the charged and bitter atmosphere fomented by an expensive coal industry campaign, a rational discussion of the region's future had become too risky — a treasonous act in the "war on coal."

It's now hard to imagine backsliding into that ridiculous dead-end — not after 1,700 people answered the bipartisan call from the governor and congressman to convene in Pikeville Monday for none other than a rational discussion of the region's future.

At summit's end, Beshear and Rogers promised to keep the effort going. The Rural Policy Research Institute, which is coordinating Shaping Our Appalachian Region, has 30 days to distill the summit's ideas into writing.

And Beshear committed to supporting some kind of administrative structure to carry forward what Rogers called a "plan of action."

Five months ago, we called on Beshear and Rogers to take the lead in shaping a future for the region as the coal industry sank deeper into decline. Former Appalachian Regional Commission head Al Smith, historian Ron Eller and, most courageously, state Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville, elaborated on the region's need for leadership in commentaries published on these pages.

But honestly we never expected Beshear and Rogers to respond with anything as impressive as SOAR already has been. Impressive if for no other reason than that for a day people united around the vision of a healthy, prosperous, diverse region.

Back in July, we said smart discussions about the future would have to take place under the noise of the U.S. Senate race. About that we were right.

Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell and his allies, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce which is running TV ads for McConnell, are determined to keep dividing people by pounding the "war on coal" drum. McConnell held his own anti-Environmental Protection Agency meeting in Pikeville last week three days before the Rogers-Beshear summit.

McConnell wants voters to believe that a GOP victory will reverse the market and geological forces that have rendered Eastern Kentucky coal uncompetitive in price.

In an October commentary in the Herald-Leader, McConnnell referred to "the good-paying jobs that only coal can provide." Coal provides fewer than one percent of Kentucky's jobs.

Kentuckians should wonder what McConnell thinks of their abilities if only coal can be the source of good pay.

Kentuckians also should ask, why — after 30 years with McConnell representing them, the last five as the Senate's most powerful Republican — Eastern Kentucky remains a deeply impoverished place, dependent on a single declining industry.