SOAR offers hope for Eastern Kentucky’s transition

By now you’ve probably heard about the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) conference that was held last week in Pikeville – it’s certainly been all over the news here in Kentucky and we’ve been sharing more stories as they come in on our Facebook page. While the stage was dominated by bigwigs – with a few notable exceptions – the audience was filled with far more “regular folks,” people from the region who are hungry for action on economic diversification in the region. And at a time when it’s so easy to be pessimistic, the tone at SOAR was one of optimism.

The morning was full of presentations and panels, some more useful than others. One of the most interesting speakers was Jenn Noble, a young entrepreneur (and the only Appalachian woman to speak) from Hazard who owns the Treehouse Café and Bakery. An artist, she had the opportunity to go to New York City but, she said, “My community needed me more than New York City,” and so she came back home. 

Also interesting was the presentation by two brothers from the iron mining region of Minnesota, which suffered the same downturn in their industry that we are facing today. Their story was familiar – massive job losses, once-vibrant towns emptying, young people leaving to find opportunities elsewhere – but what they did about it is something we can learn from. The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board was founded in the 1940s and is funded with mining taxes. The IRRRB today is tasked with job creation, supporting community transition and increasing access to higher education. It  has approximately $142 million to invest in the future of the region. Eastern Kentucky has no such fund – nor does the rest of Appalachia, though it’s certainly been discussed.

The idea of a severance tax permanent fund gained traction over the course of the day, among participants if not politicians. Governor Beshear stated in an interview that now is not the time to be making changes to the severance tax, due to the tenuous state budget situation. Regardless, legislators did seem to acknowledge that something needs to happen with severance taxes.

Maybe many of the major ideas that came from the SOAR stage weren’t new or surprising – Rep. Rogers touted four-lane highways and Gov. Beshear wants more broadband access – but perhaps what’s more important is the fact of the conversation itself. Community members have been talking about the need for transition for a long time now, on front porches and in the grocery line, at church and the dinner table. But until now we haven’t heard much about it from our elected officials. Conversations among participants in the audience and on social media –and in the media prior to the event – wondered if anything would happen after this one-day event. At the end of the day, Governor Beshear made a public commitment to continuing the SOAR process. In thirty days we’ll have a written report of the day’s findings, and thirty days after that, his administration will respond. Critically, he also committed to funding the process in the next state budget. And all of the legislators talked about the importance of bridging county and partisan divides.

This is great news, a key next step to real action on economic transition in Appalachia. After all, as we’ve said, real long-term development needs a plan. As the SOAR process moves forward, however, it’s critical that the planning process become more diverse and inclusive. As was discussed on social media, only 8 of the 42 members of the planning team were women, and only two women were panelists or presenters. Many of the voices we heard from the stage were the ones we always hear – where were the school teachers, the organizers, the artists and social entrepreneurs? Where were the high schoolers and people of color? All of these voices are critical to the future of Eastern Kentucky and must be heard, and we hope they are included in the ongoing process.

The discussion about the impact of SOAR and what comes next is ongoing. There are a lot of questions: where will the investments come from? What development strategies will be funded? Will our legislators remain committed to bipartisanship once the cameras are off?  We eagerly await the day’s findings and the governor’s response.  But regardless of what happens next, SOAR “changed the conversation,” as the Lexington Herald-Leader put it, and we can finally talk openly about the future of Eastern Kentucky.