Monday, October 28, 2013

Bipartisan group starts planning effort to boost economy of hard-hit Appalachian Kentucky

By Al Cross
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Eastern Kentucky's Republican congressman and the state's Democratic governor announced Monday they are starting an effort to stimulate the economy of Appalachian Kentucky, which includes some of the nation's poorest counties.

Appalachian Regional Commission map
shows distressed counties in red.
Gov. Steve Beshear and Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers announced in Hazard that they had hired the Rural Policy Research Institute to coordinate a strategic planning process that will go public Dec. 9 in Pikeville, with a "summit" that they hope will attract hundreds of people from Eastern and Southern Kentucky, the regions with almost all of the state's Appalachian counties.

The impetus for the effort is the recent loss of 6,000 jobs in East Kentucky's coal industry, which has dominated the region for a century but is suffering from depletion of easily mined coal, competition with natural gas, and new environmental regulations.

"With the difficulties in the coal industry . . . a lot of people are saying there's no hope for Appalachia," said Rogers, chair of the House Appropriations Committee. "They're saying the region's best days are over. Well, I say, hogwash." He said the region must "think outside the box." Only about half of Kentucky's Appalachian counties produce coal; Rogers once represented many of the non-coal Southern Kentucky counties and still looks after them in his powerful post.

Beshear said the region needs new strategies partly because "How we produce and consume energy is shifting, and the availability of government money has been sharply curtailed." However, the effort is being helped by the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Rural Development branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The effort has been dubbed Shaping our Appalachian Region, with a logo showing an eagle soaring. Beshear said it began with a planning team of three dozen regional leaders, primarily from the private sector, including coal operator Jim Booth, this year's Kentucky Chamber of Commerce chairman. Booth said his company has survived by diversifying beyond coal, and the region needs to do likewise.

Front row: Booth, Stumbo, Beshear, Rogers
"This is the beginning of a process," Beshear said of the Dec. 9 summit. "It's not a one-time event designed to produce a magic formula, because there are no magic formulas. . . . what will come of this, to be honest with you, we're not sure. . . . To be successful, the people of Appalachia, the people of Appalachia, must step up and take ownership and responsibility for their own future." (The registration page for the summit is here.)

Rogers agreed, saying, "The solution to our problem must come from within. . . . It cannot come from Washington or Frankfort or your county seat. It's got to come from us the people, we the people." He said the region must commit to innovation and technology. State legislative leaders from the region agreed.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg, said, "The target has to be a better trained, better educated workforce here in the mountains." Senate President Robert Stivers, a Republican from Manchester, said he could not "tell you we will succeed, but if we do not try, we will be doomed to failure in Eastern Kentucky."

Chuck Fluharty, CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute, said "I have never begun to work with a region in deeper need of very serious assessment for its future," but "I've never started with a region that has greater commitment to its purpose and greater political leadership."

UPDATE, Nov. 4: This effort and one to increase tourism in the region will depend largely on the efforts of people in individual communities, Al Cross, director of the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog, writes in his fortnightly column for The Courier-Journal of Louisville.

1 comment:

Judith from Harlan said...

2264Thank God people are having a wake-up call. This region of the sate is rich in natural resources, the most valuable being its people. I remember when the tsunami hit an island in Indonesia and a local fisherman was being interviewed. People wanted to send clothes, money, etc. He said that is not what we need. "Send us tools so that we might work."

Work is what our people need in this region - not just for the sake of income but for the sake of purpose and self esteem. People are identified by and identify themselves by the value of their contributions to the world around them. Work is the most significant validation in a person's life.

We are producing more and more people who have given up hope and a whole generation of young people who have no work ethic and no job preparedness because the generations before them have been stripped of jobs, opportunities, self-worth, and pride.

Get our region off of the helpless, victim mentality of "the draw," and put them to work. If people get paid for doing nothing, they teach others to do nothing and feel an entitlement to be supported by someone else because they can't help themselves. If people are already "drawing" while doing no form of work, that money is already accounted for out of the system. Create jobs that use that money to pay people for doing something - rebuilding the infrastructure of the region - SOMETHING they can be proud of!!!

Our people are not lazy, nor are they stupid, but more and more they are becoming defeated. It is not too late. Give us jobs and turn watch the region turn around.