FRANKFORT ― Amid lost coal jobs and a bleak economic future facing eastern Kentucky, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers have announced the formation of a strategic planning group to map out a future for the region.
Monday in Hazard the two announced a 40-person program planning committee for SOAR ― Shaping Our Appalachian Region ― and a Dec. 9 “summit” at the Eastern Kentucky Exposition Center in Pikeville.
Eastern Kentucky has been devastated by the loss of 6,000 coal jobs as the coal economy lags in the face of a natural gas boom and stricter environmental standards at the same time coal reserves are drying up in central Appalachia.
Beshear said the region has “seen a decline in growth and development” for several decades and both men said its problems can’t be solved by government alone.
“The solution to our problems must come from within,” Rogers said. “It cannot come from Washington or Frankfort or your county seat. It’s got to come from the people ― we the people.”
“The people of Appalachia must step up and take responsibility for their own future,” Beshear said.
Beshear and Rogers are outspoken advocates for the coal industry and critics of federal environmental policies they sometimes characterize as “the war on coal.” But Monday, both seemed to recognize the need for economic diversification.
Rogers said the region’s best resource is its people, not coal, and technology and innovation can place the region at the center of the world’s economy in ways it’s never been before.
“Everybody in this room realizes that the world is changing; the economic marketplace is shifting,” Beshear said. “For eastern Kentucky, for southeastern Kentucky to catch up and move ahead, we need new strategies.”
That’s the argument of the Berea-based Mountain Association for Community and Economic Development (MACED) has made for some time, according to its director Justin Maxson, a member of the SOAR planning committee.
Maxson said he “was incredibly impressed” with Beshear and Rogers’ “recognition of the seriousness of the situation and that there are no quick fixes or silver bullets.”
Maxson said solutions to the region’s problems have to be long-term. He said Rogers and Beshear recognize “we need economic diversification.”
The 40-person committee is heavy on industry, business and education representatives and light on government officials. But Beshear, Rogers and Maxson all said the key will be to listen to the people of the region who must develop their own vision for a better future.
“We need the input, collaboration and involvement from the people who live and work hard here every day,” Beshear said.
State Sen. President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said it’s not guaranteed the group or the summit it plans to talk about strategies will succeed.
“But if we do not try, we will be doomed to failure in eastern Kentucky,” said Stivers.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, came closest to talking about specifics. He said it’s time for state government to “re-think its commitment to eastern Kentucky,” saying he’s working on a plan to gradually return more coal severance tax money to the region.
Working with the group will be the Rural Policy Research Institute, a national policy instate which works with local groups to determine solutions to problems facing rural communities and regions. The institute will facilitate discussions at the December summit and help develop a strategy for the region based on those ideas.
Those interested in participating in the Dec. 9 summit may register online at www.kydlgweb.ky.gov.
Dr. Michael Benson, president of Eastern Kentucky University, is among the 40 people on the planning committee.