When I saw reports in October of SOAR's announcement, I found myself simultaneously full of equal parts hope and doubt. Hopeful not only because of the serious attention from political leaders to the problems, but also because of the great opportunity those challenges present. Doubtful less because of the also-rans populating SOAR's steering committee, but more to the fact that there's a dark underbelly in the region — drugs, poverty, dependency — that has thus far resisted successful intervention.
It's the people who immediately came to mind, the faces that characterize the region's dissociative identity: on one side Dr. Jekyll — the ones with great energy and passion, those well-educated, well-traveled and globally aware — and on the other, Mr. Hyde — the meth makers, the crooks, the outlaws. How can Eastern Kentucky reconcile its two faces — so widely divergent and at once the same — to prosperity?
Positive economic growth will require something that has long been elusive: Cooperation. Not in name only but a real, tangible sense of working together. Pikeville vs. Whitesburg vs. Hazard won't work. A positive announcement in one community shouldn't be greeted as threatening by another. There is more than plenty to go around and local leaders will have to at least act like they believe good for one is good for all.
To that end, we must invest heavily in our intellectual capital, legitimately answering why students in Eastern Kentucky as a whole perform worse than their peers, but also attracting and retaining those already here: young professional types who want to make their home in the region. There are plenty of folks who like the down-home atmosphere, landscape and easy pace of life in the hills. We need to give them reasons to want to be here, to invest in communities, to become our friends and neighbors. Failing schools, polluted water, littered highways, trash dumps and inadequate infrastructure won't do it. Let's play to our strengths and acknowledge our responsibility for making life here easier, not more difficult.
It is imperative that we hold our local governments transparent and our officials accountable. No more multi-million dollar wading pools in Hindman, no sweetheart deals in Whitesburg and no renegade sheriffs in McKee. Millennials have little tolerance for waste, fraud and abuse in much the same way they have little use for ineffective and bloated programs. They demand solutions, and when government can't get it done, they want it out of the way.
I'm under no illusions that this work can be accomplished quickly, but if the region continues to tread the path it has for the past 30 years, it won't have to worry about exploiting its Jekylls; they'll be long gone. There is an opportunity here to make sure that doesn't happen, but I never discount the ability of politicians and status-quoers to blow it.