Shaping Our Appalachian Region has accomplished a lot since the first summit in December 2013. SOAR has drawn a laser focus on the economic transition currently underway in Eastern Kentucky, and it has produced real results.
These include plans for expanding high-speed broadband Internet, making the Mountain Parkway four lanes all the way to Pikeville, promoting entrepreneurship as a key to our economic future and leveraging new federal funding.
These developments, and all the other activity SOAR has fostered, are big steps in the right direction for Eastern Kentucky's economic transition. We must also understand that these first steps are not the final destination.
Expanding broadband further into the region is essential. It will improve access to health care and education and help local entrepreneurs connect to markets far outside the mountains. As we bring this information pipeline to businesses and institutions, we must also ensure the people who live on the last mile of road are allowed access to high-quality broadband service as well. Through SOAR, we can encourage our leaders to be more intentional about universal access.
Making the Mountain Parkway four lanes from Campton to Pikeville will be beneficial in many ways. It will make travel in and out of the region easier, which could help increase regional tourism and expand options for local entrepreneurs. As this highway is being expanded, we must also attend to supporting vibrant and thriving communities along the parkway so that this expansion does not simply make it easier for more people to leave.
SOAR has made creating a culture of entrepreneurship in the region a cornerstone of its mission. This is a critical step that could help increase the number of local businesses that will hire local people and keep money in local communities. It will also create examples for young people of a way they can stay in or return to their communities to live and work.
Raising capital for investments will help, but we also need to bring more resources for training and technical assistance. These supports are needed to help start-up entrepreneurs succeed and encourage existing businesses to grow.
The state and federal governments have already made commitments for funding SOAR and giving priority for grant funding to Eastern Kentucky projects through programs like the federal Promise Zone.
Much more investment will be needed to support the scope and scale of economic transition that our region needs. This is why we welcome the Obama administration's announcement of the POWER Initiative, which will direct millions of dollars in already-appropriated federal funds into Eastern Kentucky communities for economic and workforce-development projects.
The White House has also proposed the release of $1 billion in abandoned mine lands funds for use on economic transition projects in the region through its POWER+ plan. Among other things, that money could be used to put Central Appalachians back to work reclaiming formerly mined lands in ways that will stimulate economic development.
With $1 billion in federal abandoned mine funds on the table, SOAR has the opportunity to help direct and support how these funds are used.
The steps we have taken represent the first mile on a very long road to reaching a diverse, sustainable economy in Eastern Kentucky. We have a long journey ahead.
As we invest in broadband, widen the Mountain Parkway, support entrepreneurship and leverage federal investment, we must make sure the benefits reach deep into our communities.
We must not leave people — our greatest resource — behind. We can build a bright future for our communities if we build it together. SOAR has given us a great start. Let's not stop until the job is done.