A year ago, Governor Beshear and Congressman Rogers announced the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) process as a way to involve eastern Kentuckians in planning a new economic future given the decline in coal and the region’s other longstanding economic challenges. On September 23, the SOAR leadership team will meet at Natural Bridge State Park to review the economic development ideas gathered over the last six months from a series of public listening sessions.
The next stage of this process is critical. As the economic challenges facing eastern Kentucky continue to worsen, the public dialogue about the region’s future must get broader, bolder and more specific.
It has been essential that the conversation to date has provided opportunities for public input. In the next stage, we must redouble our commitment to involving more of the region’s residents in this process. Leaders who have been reluctant to talk about the need for new ideas should also join in the conversation.
And it’s time to get ambitious and concrete about how we will begin building a new eastern Kentucky economy.
As that work moves forward, it’s important to remember that there will be no one-size-fits-all solution to the challenges we face. It is increasingly clear to many that attracting out-of-state companies alone will not be the answer to what ails eastern Kentucky. We need investments in a range of development strategies that have potential.
Quite a bit is already known about what works to grow a diverse and thriving economy that benefits people in need. Invest in your people through education and leadership development. Support the foundations of entrepreneurship and small business development. Invest in physical and 21st century infrastructure like broadband. Grow economic opportunities tied to specific parts of the economy that have a lot of potential, like local foods production, forestry and healthcare, to name a few.
Eastern Kentucky is blessed with assets and challenges that with the right solutions can be a critical part of a brighter future for the region. What if we acted on a vision of helping 5,000 small businesses add one or two new employees? What if 50,000 households got energy efficiency upgrades? What if 20,000 school children ate locally grown food each day? How many dollars would these ideas save and jobs would they create?
Eastern Kentucky needs big ideas and practical strategies to implement in concrete ways.
Entrepreneurship support, energy efficiency, local foods and forestry are all examples of strategies and economic opportunities that are playing a real and growing role in the region. With the right amount of investment, those sectors could be instrumental in supporting a stronger and more supportive economy. There are powerful examples today of local farmers, foresters, contractors and business owners all contributing to the economy we want and need.
In the coming weeks, the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED) will release five strategy briefs outlining ideas that people who care about the region can use to shape its future. These strategy briefs will describe existing opportunities for entrepreneurship, energy efficiency, local foods, forestry and investment in the region and what can be done to increase the impact of these strategies.
We’ll release one strategy brief every Monday through Oct. 13 at this address: maced.org/ strategybriefs.htm.
We know these aren’t the only good ideas out there; but they are ideas with opportunities to be had if we are ready to pursue them. Eastern Kentucky can shape a new road forward. While the situation is challenging, there are directions that we can take with proven positive results.
There are hopeful signs from the last year, including a growing willingness to discuss the need for change and ask people in the region what they think. Now we must build on that momentum with aggressive actions that begin making a real difference.
Justin Maxson, formerly of Whitesburg, is president of The Mountain Association for Community Economic Deveolopment (MACED) in Berea.