The federal government has awarded $10.5 million in grants to support two projects in Letcher and Pike counties.
U.S. Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers made the announcement late last week during the Saving Our Appalachian Region’s conference in Pikeville.
Rogers said $4.5 million will pay for a water line extension project in Letcher County that will serve 100 residents and a planned federal prison in the Roxana area. A $6 million grant will pay for a 60,000 square foot facility for EnerBlu, a company that plans to make lithium batteries in Pike County. Rogers said the company will hire 875 people and pay them an average wage of $39 per hour.
Republican Gov. Matt Bevin also announced a $1.2 million federal grant to develop infrastructure for a 30-acre industrial site in Perry County.
In all, approximately $12.4 million in funding for economic development in eastern Kentucky was announced at the 2018 SOAR Summit.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the great strides that we’ve seen over these last five years,” said SOAR Principal and U.S. Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers, referring to SOAR’s creation five years ago. “In practically every county, there is something that SOAR is doing, or has done, that makes a difference; that keeps Kentuckians, East Kentuckians, in eastern Kentucky and, that’s the ambition of this organization.”
Rogers said SOAR represents a large portion of Kentucky. He told attendees that their “hands are on the steering wheel.”
“Your mind is to be tapped by the region, who is looking to you and me, and all of us, to steer through a choppy sea. That’s a rarity,” he said.
He told attendees that they have a great opportunity to “change history” and bring positive change to the lives of those living in the region.
Rogers said the goal of SOAR is to keep the region’s young people in the region and to invest in the region. He said innovation must be created to launch opportunities for the next generation and the region’s former coal miners, noting that coal will always be a part of eastern Kentucky.
“It’s up to us to prepare. It’s up to us to create. It’s up to us to anticipate and try to see the future with bold, daring, smart, visionary ideas,” said Rogers. “You can do this … This is something we can do, and something we must do, and something we will do. We already have a good formula for success.”
Gov. Bevin, a principal of SOAR, said he had met with representatives from an energy company during a visit earlier last week to Korea and Japan, to discuss the possibility of bringing the company to Kentucky. He said the company may or may not decide to locate in Kentucky, but he said he has been working to increase those odds.
“These are the kinds of things that are possible that didn’t seem to be possible just even a few short years ago,” said Bevin. “These are the kinds of things that are exciting for me, as the governor, to be able to go and represent on your behalf. To be able to tell people about this extraordinary gem that we have, this stunning thing called Kentucky, called Eastern Kentucky.”
Bevin said that the ideas discussed at the first SOAR summit are becoming reality.
“Now, we’re not just talking about hypotheticals, we’re not just listening to other people tell us ‘Hey, this could in fact happen.’ Things are actually happening,” he said.
Bevin challenged attendees to continue believing the best days are ahead for Kentucky.
Other investments across the region include:
• $625,390 in grant funding from USDA Rural Development for several projects in the SOAR region, including a new national pilot program for transitional housing related to the opioid epidemic in Rockcastle County;
• $30,000 private investment from Toyota Tsusho to launch an Advanced Manufacturing Makerspace at the Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College’s Middlesboro Campus.
The importance of broadband to eastern Kentucky
Rogers discussed the importance of former coal miners being put back to work, some of whom are transitioning to technology and learning to write code.
“In 2017, the tech industry in this country, added nearly 200,000 jobs across the country and, there’s no reason why we can’t bring more of those jobs to Silicon Holler,” said Rogers. “That’s why we need the KentuckyWired project, the high-speed, high-capacity cable that is a baby born by the SOAR organization five years ago.”
Rogers said finishing the Ken- tuckyWired project is essential to the future of the region.
“Kentucky currently ranks 47th in the country for connectivity by cable. With KentuckyWired, we’ll stretch 3,000 miles of fiberoptic cable to connect every county in our state, catapulting us from 47th to number one,” said Rogers.
He said expanding broadband connectivity was one of the first ideas generated by SOAR at its first summit nearly five years ago.
“It’s now the state’s largest public works project ever,” said Rogers.
Rogers said the region already has the best work ethic, he said now, the region just needs the infrastructure.
Josh Little reports for the Appalachian News-Express in Pikeville. The Associated Press also contributed to this report.