SOAR Report Released: What’s Next?

Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear and Congressman Hal Rogers hosted a press conference, with a guest appearance from U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, earlier today to release the final report of the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) Summit. The summit, hosted in Pikeville last month, brought together 1,700 folks concerned about the region’s future. While largely deemed a success, many – including us – wondered what would come of it. Would it just be another photo op, or would we actually see some action taken to diversify eastern Kentucky’s economy?

So far, it seems like it may be the latter. On Wednesday, the Governor announced his plans to make the Mountain Parkway – a key artery from Winchester into Eastern Kentucky – four lanes for its entire length. And just a few hours ago, we learned that the Appalachian Regional Commission will get $10 million to improve broadband internet access in counties affected by the coal downturn. Both of these issues were touted as priorities from the podium at SOAR, and t’s encouraging to see movement on both those fronts. 

And today, we can read the full report from the SOAR conference. It’s a lengthy read, much of which is a thorough summary of the events of the day. But at the very beginning, the authors of the report make some key recommendations for how the SOAR Initiative should proceed:

  • While there is significant long-term work to be done, first focus on the immediate crisis of job loss. There are low-hanging fruit like collaborations, data sharing and information clearinghouses that can be taken care of quickly.
  • Take advantage of key folks’ eagerness to get involved to form an interim “coordinating committee” that can help get the SOAR Initiative off the ground.
  • Continue talking to folks in the region.
  • Choose leaders carefully. “Inspirational, servant-leadership is called for here…. Care should be taken to select a leader acceptable to as many of the region’s diverse constituencies as possible.”
  • Don’t rush the creation of a permanent structure. An interim coordinating committee can get work started while deliberate, thoughtful consideration is given to the form and function of a permanent SOAR body.
  • Young people must be involved.
  • Celebrate the successes that are already happening, including federal Race to the Top education awards, the Promise Zone initiative and the Strike Force designations.

These are encouraging recommendations. We have called for a regional planning body in the past, and know how critical it is that the voices of the people – particularly young people – be heard.

At the press conference, hosted at Pine Mountain State Park in Pineville, Ky., the crowd swelled to standing-room-only, and mostly consisted of eastern Kentucky influentials. Since the end of the SOAR Summit in December, most have been waiting to hear about next steps in the initiative. Congressman Rogers did state during his time at the podium that SOAR will indeed get a coordinating committee, working groups and a director. He also called for additional investment from federal, state and local sources. But other than that, not many details were revealed about where SOAR will go next. It seems further digestion of the report will be needed before those next steps can fully come into focus.

Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to hear our elected and appointed leaders make such strong commitments to usher in a brighter future in Appalachia. And encouraging still, are the recommendations in the final SOAR report. It’s clear the time is now for the region to advance forward. As Gov. Beshear said during the press conference: “What we need can be summed up in one word: Action.”

Photo of the crowd at the press conference by Ivy Brashear.