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December 7, 2013

SOAR-ing in eastern Kentucky

FRANKFORT — By the time many of you read this, I’ll be traveling to southeastern Kentucky, on my way to the SOAR Summit scheduled for Monday in Pikeville (at least if the weather cooperates).

I’ll be listening to WMMT radio out of Whitesburg, the world’s most eclectic radio station. I’ll be among those magic mountains and with the wonderful people who live in the region and others who don’t but still love it.

If you don’t know eastern Kentucky, get rid of your stereotypes right now. Yes, there are poor, ignorant people in eastern Kentucky — just as there are in New York City, San Francisco or London, England.

This may surprise you, but they don’t talk funny in eastern Kentucky — you and I do. We’re the ones who sound funny when we visit. When we visit, we also realize we’re not as smart as we think. You can see it in the knowing but forgiving smiles of the locals who know how to make life as well as a living in a place that requires strength and character to do either.

Here’s what you should know about the people of the region: they area a warm, strong people with a rich heritage and history who love their land passionately — perhaps even too much.

They love it too much to leave, too much sometimes to preserve its beauty in their desperation to find the means to stay there. They love it too much to give up. Their devotion to the place they love, the place which made them and defines them, leads to passionate arguments among themselves about how to preserve a way of life.

A few are interested in little more than the money which can be made from the natural resources. But most who support surface mining do so because they see it as a way to stay there. Most who oppose the worst of mining do so because they fear so little of the place and culture will be left to both sides and their children. But both sides share an incredibly deep love for the place and its people.

As many as 1,500 people will gather Monday at the East Kentucky Expo Center to brainstorm about how to diversify an economy historically dependent on a coal industry that is losing its grip on the region and the energy market. Coal won’t disappear, but it won’t be King as it sheds jobs at an alarming rate.

It’s important the SOAR planners listen to all sides. The planning committee seems heavy on government, industry and banking representatives and light on those who live day to day on the ground and on environmentalist and activist groups.

But there are signs some who have unreservedly defended coal for so long are trying to face the future with open minds. Maybe they’ll realize some of the environmentalists are retired and disabled coal miners. Maybe the environmentalists will realize some coal supporters — like state Rep. Leslie Combs — are ready to work cooperatively to make things better for all.

There are no silver bullets, Rogers says. No one knows the answer. But talking to each other and acknowledging what Rogers calls their “commonalities” will be a good start. While no one has all the answers, it’ll take all sides — not just the “leaders” — to come up with real solutions.

“I don’t know what the answer is,” said Combs. “But I swear to God, if someone will bring me an answer, I’ll do all I can to make it happen.”

That’s the kind of attitude which just might make this time different in Eastern Kentucky.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at

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