Assessing The SOAR Summit

Dec 13, 2013

If nothing else, the recent SOAR Summit shows that Eastern Kentuckians are ready to talk about the future.

The morning session included opening remarks from the summit’s bipartisan conveners, Governor Steve Beshear and Congressman Hal Rogers, And an extensive presentation by Joe and Tony Sertich, a father and son duo from the iron range of northeastern Minnesota, on what lessons can be learned from their region’s transition.  In the early 1980's, mining companies in Minnesota reduced their employment from 16,000 to 5,000 miners in less than two years. 

One of the key players in this moment of economic crisis was the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, of which Tony Sertich is commissioner.  Using a portion of the tax from the region’s mined resources,

We established a jobs program that kept those unemployed people from leaving our region. And they worked on public works projects all across our region.  So bettered our communities, kept them there, made sure they got a paycheck instead of an unemployment check, and kept the vast majority of them in our region.

Currently in Kentucky, only half of the severance tax on mined coal returns to the coal producing counties, and there is no permanent coal severance trust fund for the future.  However, a report published in 2012 by the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development and the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy in estimated that even a permanent fund started now, involving a one percent severance tax could grow to $735 million by 2035 and be able to pay annual dividends of $31 million (in current dollars) at that time just using eastern Kentucky revenue, which could be used for investments in education and economic development in eastern Kentucky.

As Carl Shoupe, a retired coal miner from Harlan County and a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth sees it, while additional investment in the region is critically needed, the change also needs to be bigger than just that –

You know, not only in eastern Kentucky do we have to diversify our economy, and try to get some different industry and different things going here, but we gotta diversify our leadership in eastern Kentucky.  This region has been, and is, I hate to say it, but you know, it has a history of cronyism big time.  And we need some honest and courageous leaders, because we need some courageous decisions to be made if we’re gonna survive here in eastern Kentucky.

And according to Justin Maxson, President of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, and a member of the 41 person SOAR planning committee, there’s a lot of reasons why the rest of the state and the country should be paying attention what’s happening right now in Appalachia -

Eastern Kentucky and Central Appalachia were critical to the industrialization of the U.S. You know the coal that was mined in the region for eighty years, was critical to steel mills, to the electrification of the U.S., that people sacrificed their health and their homes for coal.  And I think it’s important that story is told, and that the rest of the state and the rest of the country understands the costs that extraction meant to the region. Two is I think there’s an economic argument for the rest of the state of Kentucky.  If we invest smarter in eastern Kentucky, in a way that over time addresses some of the challenges, there are economic upsides to the rest of the state.

For Ivy Brashear of Perry County, SOAR is an opportunity for the beginning of new kind of conversation.

This is a really key moment, to bring lots of different people together.  Not just one side against another side, but it’s a time to come together as one community, one region.  And I think times of crisis sort of bring out collaboration, and a spirit of reconciliation.