SOAR summit raises some questions

Congratulations to organizers of the third SOAR summit, held Monday in Pikeville. The 1,200 attendees were treated to a showcase of promising ventures underway in Kentucky’s mountains, along with lots of ideas for expanding economic opportunities and enriching the quality of life.

The agenda included national heavyweights and Kentuckians doing important work, while lots of networking took place during breaks and in the hallways.

A protest by a group of young Letcher County residents, who unfurled a banner opposing proposals for a federal prison near the Lilley Cornett Woods, underscored SOAR’s value as a regional forum.

Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and his staff stayed until the end of a long day, exiting the East Kentucky Expo Center as the last exhibitors were packing up.

Bevin touted the new state budget’s creation of an endowment for economic development in Eastern Kentucky launched with $15 million in coal severance tax revenue. The new governor’s engagement in something co-founded by his predecessor bodes well for SOAR’s future.

The summit did leave hanging some questions that need answers to ensure the credibility of Shaping Our Appalachian Region and its hopes for a better future:

▪  What is Bevin’s plan for broadband expansion and what, if anything, is left of the plan unveiled last year by SOAR founders Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican Congressman Hal Rogers to expand high-speed broadband statewide in partnership with Australian investment bank Macquarie Capital?

Bevin told the gathering that he was “bringing it back and focusing it on Eastern Kentucky.” But last week his administration announced a partnership with Cincinnati Bell to install 166 miles of fiber optic cable in five Northern Kentucky counties.

The summit’s overriding theme was the urgency of bridging the digital divide — between rural and urban Kentucky and also between Kentucky and the rest of the country. Kentucky is sacrificing a competitive advantage by slowing down its broadband expansion. Bevin owes the state some specifics.

▪  Who will spur Eastern Kentucky to tackle its most obvious health challenge, reducing the rate of smoking?

Speaking Monday, Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, apologized for bringing up smoking in Kentucky. But he is not the one who should be embarrassed. SOAR counties have the nation’s highest smoking rates and some of the worst health outcomes and shortest life expectancies. SOAR’s committee on health endorsed a statewide smoke-free law but it didn’t even get a vote in this year’s legislature. When it comes to improving health, Kentucky’s elected leaders must provide more than lip service.

▪  How can SOAR democratize itself so that ideas really can rise from the grassroots? SOAR’s governing structure shuts out too many people who have something valuable to offer. The committees should be reformed to include anyone who wants to serve, and the board should adopt a more formal process for directly responding to committee concerns.

Since the first summit in December 2013, SOAR’s biggest accomplishments have been intangible: Making it safe to talk about something other than coal as an economic option in the mountains and encouraging regional thinking in a place historically divided by parochial political kingdoms.

That raises another question: In a region that has long suffered from poverty, can SOAR mature from a clearinghouse for ideas into a real force for change?