As the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) Conference approaches, interest and excitement is growing. Over 1,000 people have already registered for the one-day meeting in Pikeville, KY on December 9th, and editorials and articles about it are popping up in newspapers across the region. The facilitator for the conference, Chuck Fluharty of the Rural Policy Research Institute, recently wrote a column about his optimism for the day's outcomes.
Rural regions too often get short shrift from the federal government, Fluharty says (and we agree), so it's even more important that local people get together to solve their own problems. Here's a snippet from the column, which you can read in its entirety at the Agri-Pulse website.
Prior to the press conference announcing this Summit, they held the first meeting of the SOAR Planning Committee, who appeared with them at the media event. These fifty citizens of eastern and southern Kentucky, representing the diverse interests and organizations which call Appalachian Kentucky home, were asked to create the Summit agenda, and support its way forward. In response to media questions, they all echoed a common theme-the SOAR Summit is simply the first step in a journey, not just an event.
These folks have been here before, many times. There have been countless commissions, strategic plans, and working groups designed to address the challenges in Appalachian Kentucky. Though all were well-intentioned, and most quite well done, the regional will necessary to move from words to action could never be sustained. Governors and legislative leadership changed, party powers revolved, the outlook for coalfield prosperity ebbed and flowed, and important initiatives fell by the wayside, as broader regional efforts were eventually destroyed by short-sighted and self-centered path dependencies, including those of local political elites fearing loss of power and control.
This time, Appalachian Kentucky has lost 6,000 coal mining jobs in the last 18 months, and everyone knows these jobs are not returning. Most of these were over $50,000/year, breadwinner jobs, supporting families who have called these mountains home for generations. No crisis should ever be wasted, and this reality has focused the mind and heart of this region…. Here is a leading Republican and a leading Democrat standing together to serve as public champions for a new regional governance, which has eluded Appalachian Kentucky for decades. This will require generational commitments, of course, but the lasting legacy would be profound. SOAR is a perfect acronym for this effort, as this region must, indeed, “shape” its future. That is the essential first step in all successful regional innovation efforts, regardless of place or circumstance. And that is most definitely the critical first step in Kentucky.
Whether the summit will be as successful as Fluharty hopes remains to be seen. Will our local leaders accept the challenge to think regionally? Will the development strategies be innovative, inclusive and building on the skills and spirit of Eastern Kentuckians or will they be more of the same? Will we be able to overcome the partisan bickering that seems to overwhelm so much of our discourse these days? What will be the long-term results of the Summit? We'll be taking our own energy, hopes and ideas to the Summit, and hope that you will do the same.