E. Ky. challenges, opportunities; Need regional economic development, worker training

Ron Daley, a former Knott County weekly newspaper publisher/editor and the chairperson for the Kentucky Association of Local P-16 Councils, lives in Hazard.
Ron Daley, a former Knott County weekly newspaper publisher/editor and the chairperson for the Kentucky Association of Local P-16 Councils, lives in Hazard.

Appalachian Kentucky's need to have a comprehensive strategic plan for regional economic enhancement is challenging due to the county-line government boundaries, quasi-government planning organizations and higher education service regions.

State policies have not provided adequate incentives or direction to encourage necessary regional approaches to improving the economy. Additionally, the mountainous terrain in much of the area has made regionalism more difficult to achieve.

Mountain residents are at work increasing education levels, improving the economic potential and building a plan for the future. Gov. Steve Beshear and Congressman Hal Rogers are working on a plan of action while other worthwhile proposals are being promoted from the region.

Pragmatic approaches will be required to address some of the impediments and challenges which will not be resolved for some time, if ever:

■ Too many counties.

The county boundaries were established in the 19th century based on travel by horseback so people could get to county seats and back in one day. In addition to the duplicated funds in operating small governments, we have become so county-oriented in our loyalties that regional cooperation has been made more difficult. School districts also are based on county boundaries, limiting regionalism and cost effectiveness in academic programming. Counties are here to stay, so creative solutions based on regional incentives will be needed.

■ Too many development districts.

Kentucky's development districts are based on the model created in the 1960s, which has made it more difficult to achieve a comprehensive plan for the coalfields. The state has 15 districts, including eight which serve the east as chief planning organizations. Despite strong mountain districts, need exists for an Appalachian Coalfields Empowerment District.

We could follow the model of the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority developed in 1996 by the Virginia Regional Competitiveness Act, which sponsors regional and collaborative projects with incentives. The rebirth of the Kentucky Appalachian Commission is also an option.

■ Lack of a comprehensive, regional public university.

This has denied the region the job-creating and civic-capacity building which universities provide while limiting convenient access to advanced degrees to mountain residents. Southeast Kentucky is divided into service regions assigned to Eastern Kentucky University and Morehead State University.

The university system has struggled to provide the same access to academic programming and student services in rural areas as on their primary campuses, especially since state budget cutbacks have occurred since 2002. The divisive discussion caused by the proposal to make the University of Pikeville a part of the state system illustrated the fierce competition for funding. The use of coal severance tax dollars for scholarships is laudable and necessary, however state general fund dollars should be available to serve students in our region.

The General Assembly should increase funding to allow the University of Pikeville to be a part of the university system. The Kentucky Council of Postsecondary Education should work with the higher education institutions to develop flexible service regions which serve the needs of the area.

■ Inadequate use of severance taxes.

Coal/mineral severance funding levels and policies have not encouraged regional economic development programs. Coal-producing counties deserve and need more than the 50 percentof the tax presently distributed and an even larger amount needs to reward regionalism.

Much of the spending has been for industrial development, physical infrastructure and individual county projects instead of preparing communities for an information-age economy. The region should not give up hope of landing industrial plants or large employers; however, planning should focus on the use of advanced technology and on encouraging entrepreneurism.

More of the severance funds should be tied to regional job creation; all county and regional funds must be tied to economic development plans and money should be used to fund an endowment for future use based on planning needs. Also, instead of the piecemeal approach by some existing, worthwhile entrepreneurial programs, stakeholders should pool resources to seek funding in order to create an integrated group of young and mature entrepreneurs.

■ Insufficient broadband access and worker training.

Thousands of Eastern Kentuckians can be hired by employers based either in or out of the region, working at home or in business incubators and using technology. All counties in the East began the process of becoming Work Ready Communities under the nationally recognized Kentucky Workforce Investment Board.

The newly formed Appalachian Innovations Collaborative is using this framework in the 13 counties in the Kentucky River and Big Sandy ADD's to create the nation's first "Rural Edu-Conomy Empowerment District," tying education to jobs.

■ Limited use of the Abandoned Mine Land Fund.

The federal government has over $2.5 billion in the fund which can be used for a major jobs program, putting miners back to work while building the infrastructure with water and sewer lines and enhancing the environment with projects to promote adventure tourism.

Eastern Kentucky is an area in transition. As a region, we must address the regional impediments and challenges. We have the leadership capacity and good old-fashioned mountain ingenuity to leap forward for an even brighter future.

Appalachian Innovations Collaborative meets Oct. 23 in Hazard. For more information, contact Ron Daley at rdaley98@yahoo.com.