Eastern Kentucky needs ““a sustained change of culture and mindset across many communities” if it is to achieve the promise created by the first year of the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative, SOAR’s executive director said in an interview broadcast on Sunday.
Jared Arnett was questioned by KET’s “One to One” by Bill Goodman, in a broadcast timed to advance the SOAR Strategy Summit, to be held in Pikeville on Monday, February 16. “We’re looking for the leaders, the army that will make this happen,” he said.
Goodman noted an op-ed piece that Arnett published in December, in which he advocated three or four regional chambers of commerce like the one that he headed – based in Pike County but laying claim to economic-development efforts in eight nearby counties.
“A county judge-executive claimed that the chamber was breaking the law by getting involved in economic development,” Arnett wrote. “We can’t let local politics and turf wars hold us back any longer, if we want to create jobs that generate wealth.”
Arnett, a native of Salyersville, started at SOAR January 1. He told Goodman that he lives in Floyd County, “but that’s just where I live. I’m an eastern Kentuckian. That’s what SOAR is about, is a shift in the mindset and our culture.”
He said efforts to help the region as a whole are undercut by the competitive feeling among the region’s counties and towns. “We’re losing as a region, and need to be competing for jobs and economic growth,” he said. “What has to drive the future of eastern Kentucky is a shared ownership of what we’re trying to do.”
Arnett said regional efforts would be helpful in developing tourism, which he noted has been discussed as a potential asset for eastern Kentucky since 1959. Tourism promotion is done by the state or by local tourism commissions, using money from lodging and restaurant taxes, and Arnett suggested that isn’t the best approach. He said the local commissions “have done a good job,” but he goes on vacation, “Very rarely do I know what county I’m in.”
When it comes to recruiting industry, Arnett said, “We’ve not been proactive.” The region needs to decide what industries it wants and go get them, he said. He also endorsed the idea of a regional development fund using coal severance tax revenue “or whatever the state would decide to invest.”
Arnett said the success of SOAR would be measured by metrics such as health, unemployment rates, poverty rates, private investment and new business start-ups over the next five to 10 years. “If we’re not able to impact those numbers,” he said, “I’ll be tremendously disappointed.”
Al Cross is the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.