"The groups had their first meetings last week at the annual East Kentucky Leadership Conference in Somerset, a site that gave both the long-held conference and the months-old SOAR a broader geographic base, and wove together some of the region's contrasting political threads," Cross writes. One of the most common ideas mentioned "was a need to overcome the divisions created by county lines." Other ideas centered around finding ways to promote the region's vast sources of tourism, agriculture, timber and livestock.
Charles W. Fluharty, president of the Rural Policy Research Institute, who is acting as temporary staff leader for SOAR, told the crowd, "I've never seen so much progress or bipartisan commitment from the political establishment. The challenge is to translate that to the grass roots."
SOAR, which "was launched in response to a steep decline in the region's coal industry," is a bipartisan effort led by Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican 5th District U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Somerset, Cross writes. Ron Crouch, a demographer with the state Workforce Development Cabinet, said "the economy of the Eastern Kentucky Coalfield has been diversifying for many years, to the point that coal now ranks only sixth in employment, with health care ranking first, and such categories as education and retail trade in between," Cross writes.