Hopes Are High Among Many Heading Into SOAR Summit

Dec 7, 2013

The search for a collaborative vision into eastern Kentucky's future is being fueled by SOAR, short for Shaping Our Appalachian Region.

SOAR launches Monday with a summit in Pikeville.

Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, says diversification beyond coal has to be a cornerstone of any economic strategy in the region.

"Coal's been a friend," he says, "but it's not our future. We know that if we're going to turn our economy around we've got to do something different."

Nearly 6,000 coal jobs have been lost in the region over the past two years, fueling the push for diversification that will be a major topic of the summit.

Davis, who heads an organization that advocates for rural communities across the country, says small towns that do well are places where people want to live. And he points out that nowadays, people carry the economy in their laptops.

"We have to make sure they're wired," he adds. "You have to have accessible, affordable broadband. We've got to have good schools, better schools than we've got now. We have to have health care that people can rely on."

SOAR is the brainchild of Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky, who want the bipartisan effort to lead to a collaborative vision for the future of the Appalachian region.

Davis says leadership is crucial for SOAR to work, adding that the state's leaders must step up and take responsibility for where the region is now and where it needs to go.

"In the short term, we've got to deal with the realities," he stresses. "Our congressional district is last in the country in wealth. We're last in health. We have to turn these things around, but I believe that the assets are there."

If the people of Appalachia put their minds to it, Davis says, they can turn things around. More than 1,500 are registered to attend the all-day summit on Monday.

PROGRAM NOTE:  WUKY will have special coverage of the SOAR Summit on Monday.  Veteran radio reporter Sylvia Ryerson will file reports from Pikeville during Morning Edition and All Things Considered.