APPALACHIAN KENTUCKY including reports from the David Hawpe Fellow in Appalachian reporting

Reports from the David Hawpe Fellow in Appalachian reporting at the Institute for Rural Journalism

Reflecting on a summer of reporting: Telling the stories of neighbors helping neighbors recover from a devastating flood

By Ivy Brashear
University of Kentucky Institute for Rural Journalism

One of the first stories I covered this summer as the first David Hawpe Fellow in Appalachian reporting sent me driving down Highway 476, through Rowdy and Ary, two of the hardest-hit places in last year's devastating Eastern Kentucky flood.

Ivy Brashear
I used to spend a lot of time in these communities in high school when I’d go to my cousin’s house. I’d drive there on weekends to spend the day with her, snaking my way along the winding road that follows Troublesome Creek. We’d go to the local dairy bar to eat, then drive around for a while, listening to music with the windows down.

Driving there this summer, I barely recognized much of the places I once knew so well. The July 2022 flood barreled through them, and left ruins in its wake. What’s left of the communities is completely changed in a visceral, and sometimes, intangible way. Nearly one year later, not much has changed.

This was the overwhelming theme of my time reporting about flood recovery in the region. I interviewed dozens of people for the stories I covered, and every one of them has been changed by the flood in some way. What they lived through rattled them, and even though they have kept going, rebuilding as best they can, they have deep wounds. They are scarring over, but they will be there forever.

This reality is what’s lost in narratives about disasters on this scale. There is immediate coverage by national news outlets, but that coverage quickly dries up, and the media move on to the next big story happening somewhere else in the country.

National news media have little time to linger for the kind of long-haul reporting that is necessary to describe the full magnitude of something like the July 2022 flood. It’s about the disaster itself and the immediate recovery to be sure. But the human impacts of disasters, which are becoming more frequent and more severe with climate change, are felt for years after, shaping recovery and any future these communities have in every way imaginable.

This is why local journalists are so important to rural places. They are there when disaster strikes, and they are there in its wake, covering the stories with a level of knowledge one only gets from living in and telling stories about a place for years. They are a part of what one source told me this summer made relief efforts in Eastern Kentucky run so smoothly: The human infrastructure of rural places. And for that reason, they can tell stories of disaster and recovery with empathy and nuance, ensuring their communities are well informed about recovery efforts that will take years to begin, and years more to complete.

But local newsrooms are not as well-resourced as they once were, meaning they have far less reporters to cover important stories. My time as the David Hawpe Fellow with the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky was meant to supplement existing coverage by local newsrooms across Eastern Kentucky and help them catch the stories they might not have otherwise had time to cover. It is important work to help newspapers continue telling their communities’ stories, especially when they may not be able to accomplish that task on their own.

My time spent reporting about Eastern Kentucky this summer was brief, but the weight of responsibility I felt in this work was real, for that reason.

his fellowship allowed me space to think deeply about disaster recovery in an under-resourced rural place. Federal money is on the way, and that’s a relief, but it will still take a long time, and the people of Eastern Kentucky who lost their homes, or whose crops were ruined, or whose stability was shattered, don’t have time to wait.

The people I spoke with for the stories I wrote sprang into action the day after the flood waters receded, and they haven’t stopped in their efforts to rebuild their communities, their homes or their livelihoods. They are very hopeful for a brighter tomorrow.

I am grateful they allowed me into their lives for a moment. It was a great privilege to be trusted with their stories. And though my time covering these stories has now come to close, the work of recovery in Eastern Kentucky will continue for years to come. It’s my hope that good reporters will still tell these stories as long as it takes to get the region back on its feet.

Ivy Brashear grew up in Viper, Ky., and is a Ph.D. student in the University of Kentucky College of Communication and Information.

Almost a year after the flood, government aid for permanent housing begins to flow

By Ivy Brashear
UK Institute for Rural Journalism

Eastern Kentucky organizations can begin applying very soon for money from a state fund created to help people whose homes were damaged or destroyed in the July 2022 flood get back into stable, permanent housing.

With nearly 9,000 homes in 13 counties affected, the $10 million for Eastern Kentucky in the Rural Housing Trust Fund won’t go far. But the General Assembly created it to fill the gap in housing funding until the state gets almost $300 million from the federal government, which moves more slowly. The fund will also help while homeowners wait on federal buyouts to be finalized.

Applications for the state funds could be open as soon as late July, but the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) fund has to be replenished by Congress, which typically waits until near the end of a calendar year to do that.

Property buyouts by the Federal Emergency Management Agency started this month, almost a year after the flood. Landowners in Breathitt, Knott, Letcher and Perry counties can still apply for buyouts through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service until August 18, but NRCS representative Jimmy Lyons said it could take up to nine months for applicants to receive those payments.

In the meantime, homeowners will have the state Rural Housing Trust Fund. The legislature used $20 million in disaster recovery funds to create the fund, allocating $10 million each to Western and Eastern Kentucky communities hit by the 2021 tornadoes and 2022 flood, respectively.

The Kentucky Housing Corporation, a state agency, oversees the fund. Its deputy executive director, Wendy Smith, said they are working with local nonprofits in both regions to determine how the money should be spent to help low-income families get back into homes.

Applications for funds to do that will be submitted by local housing-development nonprofits and organizations who are building homes for displaced families. An advisory committee that developed a plan for spending the money will review the applications.

The plan is still in the draft stages, but Smith said allocations will depend on the kinds of repairs, rebuilding or new construction needed, and will be on a tiered system. Organizations can apply for up to $60,000 for repairs on existing homes, and up to $140,000 for demolition and rebuilding on land owned by the homeowner. Funds will be distributed per home, and housing-development organizations can decide whether the money is needed to help a family buy the home, or to reimburse the organization for the cost of building it.

Smith said KHC has never operated a program with this much flexibility, which is designed to get displaced Eastern Kentuckians back into stable housing as quickly as possible and “get toward the potential of offering radical affordability for some homeowners.”

Because the median household income in Eastern Kentucky is especially low, many residents cannot afford to buy homes at their appraised value, Smith said. More funds are likely needed to fill that gap, and that’s where the Rural Housing Trust Fund can help.

The 2022 flood exacerbated an existing housing shortage in Eastern Kentucky. Not only isn’t there enough housing, there’s even less affordable housing, so low-income people are left to live in “found housing,” said Scott McReynolds, executive director of the Hazard-based Housing Development Alliance. These are often inherited houses, or mobile homes on family-owned land that carries no rent. Found housing “got hammered” in the flood, McReynolds said.

“We are and have been an extraordinarily low-income area for a long time, and housing is expensive,” he said. “When folks don’t have a lot of money, it’s really hard to get them a decent home.”

He said HDA was working before the flood with 250 people on home repairs, and another 250 who wanted a new home, in a region where about 20 percent of the population in each county lives in manufactured housing, according to KHC. The national average of people living in manufactured housing is 6 percent; Kentucky’s average is 11 percent.

One option for those who can’t afford to buy a home, even with state and federal assistance, is multi-family rental housing. Smith said KHC is planning to use $5 million of the Rural Housing Trust Fund on multi-family housing in Western Kentucky but can’t yet consider this in the east  because there is less land available for such developments.

Until more developable land becomes available, Smith said, the RHTF will still help a lot of people.

“There are going to be folks who have owned their family land for generations, the house has not had a mortgage on it forever . . . and they can’t move back there because it’s in the flood plain, but they can’t get a traditional loan on a $150,000 house,” Smith said. “They’re going to have a significant amount of help with the Rural Housing Trust Fund.”

KHC does not yet know how much of the $300 million in federal CDBG-DR funds will go for housing. The money will be used for other recovery tasks, such as infrastructure repairs, disaster mitigation and economic development. The funds will go through the state Department for Local Government and will be available for a six-year grant period.

Adrienne Bush, executive director of the Housing and Homeless Coalition of Kentucky, said the government money will be crucial in getting people back into housing, but they also need to ensure that people stay in those homes long-term.

The Housing and Homeless Coalition and other Kentucky nonprofits want the legislature to create a permanent emergency-response fund for affordable housing that could fill housing gaps in the wake of disasters until federal money can be allocated.

At the federal level, housing is not funded as an entitlement for low-income people in the same way that SNAP and Medicaid are. If there is a federal disaster declaration, those programs provide emergency funds for food and health care, but no such mechanism exists for housing.

So, while FEMA can immediately provide emergency temporary housing, it cannot fund more permanent solutions. The coalition wants to figure out how to make housing a permanent part of disaster funding so there won’t be such a long time between destruction and a new, permanent home.

Meanwhile, the state money is very welcome, Bush said, and Kentucky is one of few Southern states that have dedicated general-fund money to housing. But she says more is always needed, and the coalition and others will keep advocating for that.

“Unfortunately,” she said. “it takes something like a disaster to get folks to pay attention to it.”

One woman’s trouble on Troublesome, and her recovery from the flood

By Ivy Brashear
UK Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

ROWDY, Ky. – Missy Young sits on a turned-up tree stump on the banks of Troublesome Creek looking out at the water, clear enough that we can see Kentucky bass swimming by on this humid June day. She’s telling stories about the many friends, family and neighbors who have come to this part of Troublesome to celebrate and have fun in the nine years she’s lived next to this sandy stretch of land next to the creek as part of her farm, 2nd Chance Homestead.

Missy Young in Troublesome Creek (Photo by Ivy Brashear)
Her dog, Junebug, has busied herself digging holes in the loose sand, and her fiancé, Donny, built a swing stand on the banks where they sit together on cool summer nights. Her grandchildren have waded into the water on numerous occasions, friends have kayaked it with her. And when her brother, Jesse, died from a fentanyl overdose in 2020, she came to this creek for solace and emotional release, to help her heal.

But one year ago, Young and her patch of Troublesome Creek had a reckoning.

Roughly 11 inches of rain poured into the hollers of Eastern Kentucky in just a few hours on the night of July 27-28, 2022, causing Troublesome to swell more than anyone with living memory of the creek had ever seen. It quickly rose to engulf the sandy banks, entered her fields where she farms a wide array of vegetables, wedding flowers, fruits and herbs for sale in the Perry County Famers’ Market, and soon, the water had covered Highway 476 and reached her porch, about six feet above ground.

She stood with her daughter on that porch and watched as the flood picked up her barn and carried it the length of her fields before hitting a tree and turning it on its side. They saw a car, nose down with its headlights on, swept under the water and out of sight. She still worries about whether someone was driving that car when the waters came for it. Four bodies – three of them children – were found on her farm. That fact still haunts her.

“That messes with me more than anything,” Young said. “Those are the things that you don’t forget.”  

The water slowly receded over the next day and Young and her family began assessing what was lost. Her basement pantry, where she lined the walls with shelves of food she’d canned and preserved. The barn, and everything in it, including their tractor and other farm equipment. The crops they’d been about to harvest – white half-runner green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers. The fields where they’d planted since becoming stewards of this land, were in complete disarray, littered with debris left behind in what many consider the most devastating flood in Eastern Kentucky’s history.

Young had no idea where to begin. Rebuilding a complex ecosystem they had carefully cultivated and stewarded was daunting. So was replacing the loss of food from her pantry, and the heirloom seeds she’d collected for years, some of them irreplicable. She is still processing the trauma of loss and the reality of surviving the disaster, one unlike any this region had ever seen before.

At least two things are clear to her. She and her family will continue farming on 2nd Chance Homestead, and despite the awesome destructive power of the creek that she witnessed firsthand, she will always return to the water.

She said the first time she stepped in the creek after the flood, “It was like, there you are: You did come back to your senses.”

National Weather Service map, adapted by the UK Institute for Rural Journalism

Eastern Kentucky food growers’ flood relief hasn’t been mainly federal

By Ivy Brashear

University of Kentucky Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

ROWDY, Ky. – The July 2022 Eastern Kentucky flood swept away the vegetables, fruits, herbs and wedding flowers that Missy Young raised to sell in the Perry County Famers’ Market, as well as the basement pantry where she stored canned goods, and the barn with all her equipment.

But aid from the federal government has been slow coming, and the meager disaster assistance she qualified for was wholly insufficient to recoup her losses, to say nothing of rebuilding the ecosystem she had carefully cultivated in the 11 acres along Troublesome Creek.

So, Young and other small-scale farmers or large-scale gardeners who provide food for their families and neighbors have largely relied on personal savings, other farmers, nonprofit groups and disaster aid groups for cleanup, recovery and restocking their pantries with home-canned food.

The issue highlights a gap through which rural growers fall in times of crisis.

Federal Emergency Management Agency funds are available to homeowners, but can’t be used to repair damage to crops and fields, or to recover lost food stores preserved for the winter. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has disaster relief programs for farmers and livestock producers, but those programs were only opened up to 22 Eastern Kentucky counties this year, and funds won’t be disbursed until next year.

The USDA’s Farm Service Agency is offering two disaster relief programs to Eastern Kentucky farmers. If the farm is listed with the FSA as cropland, or ownership can be proven, it can qualify for the Emergency Conservation Program, which offers a cost share to clean up debris and sediment from fields. Applications for this program are being accepted until August 14. FSA also operates the Emergency Relief Program, which is open to farmers who lost crops to natural disasters. Its signup deadline was Friday, July 14.

These programs only cover loss of the crop itself, not the food many farmers and gardeners preserve for winter, and gardeners who don’t sell food commercially are not eligible.

“On the whole, when you think of a farm, you think of a farm that’s hundreds of acres, not an acre or two alongside a creek that someone’s producing a market garden out of,” said Jennifer Weeber, Northfork Local Food Coordinator for the Community Farm Alliance, a statewide membership organization. “But still, they’re a farmer.”

Weeber said such misperceptions were a barrier to Eastern Kentucky farmers accessing FSA programs, and since home gardeners didn’t qualify, they had to rely on local programs and donations. Weeber said such philanthropy was the largest source of support for Eastern Kentucky farmers and gardeners immediately after the flood.

Eastern Kentucky’s topography makes little land available for large-scale farming. Many farmers operate market farms, producing small crops of vegetables to sell at local farmers’ markets or restaurants. They’re mainly along rivers and creeks, so were prime targets of the disaster, especially in the four most flooded counties of Perry, Knott, Letcher and Breathitt.

Chad Conway, Knott County’s University of Kentucky Extension agent for agriculture and natural resources, estimates that 90 percent of the county’s gardeners and farmers were affected by the flood. Many were unable to save anything from their gardens, and much of the vegetable crops nearing harvest the day before were contaminated by toxins in the floodwaters.

Conway said home-grown food has been more important recently as the cost of some staple foods like eggs has risen. In addition to losing last summer’s crops and the ability to put up that food for winter, many families lost pantries full of home-canned food.

Preserving food “is something that those folks really enjoyed, and it was a comfort to them to be able to have that food in the winter months that they grew and harvested and put away,” Conway said. For so many, to lose all of that in one night was “devastating.”

Getting help

Missy Young’s house is roughly the length of half a football field away, uphill, from Troublesome Creek, across Highway 476 in Rowdy, one of the hardest hit areas of Perry County. The water destroyed her barn, all her farm equipment and her entire garden crop, which was underwater for hours. She had been ready to start harvesting the day before.

Conway said Extension and local agriculture nonprofits and other local organizations immediately sprang into action.

CFA worked with the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky in Hazard to reopen the Central Appalachian Family Farm Fund, which they established in 2020 to help local farmers recoup income losses during the pandemic. They had relaunched the fund in 2021 in response to flooding in Breathitt County, and relaunched it again in 2022. They were able to give direct payments of up to $5,000 to 124 farms to help with immediate needs.

They also offered up to $500 to home gardeners who suffered losses and didn’t qualify for federal assistance because they don’t sell crops commercially. Almost 200 gardeners accepted nearly $100,000 from this fund.

In normal times, CFA works to improve local food systems by organizing and encouraging cooperation among local, small-scale family farmers. But the pandemic and floods have forced the organization to shift its focus to crisis assistance.

“We don’t do disaster philanthropy, but we seem to be doing disaster philanthropy all the time,” Weeber said.

Help for farmers and home gardeners came from other places, too. The Lee Initiative of nationally famous chef Edward Lee of Louisville partnered with World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that provides meals after disasters, to provide boxes of produce to those who lost home-canned food so they could do a pantry re-stock.

The Lee Initiative also donated $25,000 to each farmers’ market in Perry, Knott, Letcher and Breathitt counties so they could operate “free markets” for weeks after the flood. Market coordinators used the money to buy produce from local and regional growers whose sales took a hit because of the flood, then gave that produce in bushels to local gardeners who were flooded so they would have food to preserve. Additional money was provided to purchase meat and eggs.

Weeber said the Kentucky Horticulture Society was a big help too. Its members worked with local high-school programs to offer small-engine repair to farmers.

It all points to what Weeber calls the “human infrastructure” of the region. So much built infrastructure was lost in the flood, but the relationships that existed well before helped local people and organizations mobilize assistance for farmers, gardeners and producers almost immediately after.

“To know that this person or this group really has boots on the ground and know what’s going on in here, and these folks have resources – it’s about connecting them and knowing where the strengths are and playing well in the sandbox together,” Weeber said. “I saw it play out so many times of people having those connections and working them.”

“Totally restored my faith in the human race”

Perry County Extension Agent Charles May’s attention immediately turned to livestock producers after the flood. He knew they would need help feeding their animals or recovering from losses. Some lost entire herds. May said one goat herd was trapped in a barn and swept away. Many more lost entire feed crops. Hay fields in stream bottoms were completely flooded and unsalvageable, leaving cattle, goat and sheep farmers short of feed.

The phone at May’s office “never stopped ringing” with calls from across the country wanting to help, and feed came from as far away as Colorado, he said. He and Breathitt County Extension Agent Reed Graham secured an empty warehouse in Jackson, with an acre under roof, to store donations. May said one man brought 100 bales of Bermuda grass from South Carolina in a “rinky-dink horse trailer.” And made two trips. “It’s stuff like that that just makes you want to cry,” May said.

The hay from Colorado had been headed for thoroughbred horses in the Bluegrass. May said he wasn’t sure who diverted it, but knew why: “They said, ‘Send it to Eastern Kentucky because they need it more’.”

Donations also included 12 tractor-trailer loads of bagged feed, fencing materials, rubber mud boots, barbed-wire posts, horse tack, and close to $200,000 in money. They worked with the Mountain Cattlemen’s Association to develop a formula that helped them determine what each producer lost, and distributed about $144,000 to recoup losses.

“It just seemed like everybody involved in agriculture really bonded during that disaster, and was able to help so much,” Graham said. “We used to spend hours and hours talking to people. I think everybody was kind of coping with it, almost everybody wanted to tell you their story.”

Letcher County Farmers Market Manager Louise Murtaugh said “The emotional toll was amazing on those of us trying to keep it together. . . . I would come home, and I would just drop and sleep for a couple hours because it was just so much.”

Ultimately, it was the connections those working in Eastern Kentucky agriculture developed prior to the flood – and that were strengthened through it – that helped everyone in the farming community recover in the months right after, despite the emotional and physical toll it took.

“To see people that you really care about go through such devastation, it’s just difficult,” May said. But the way people from across the state came together to help moves him still: “It just amazed me. It totally renewed my faith in the human race.”

As for those who suffered losses from the flood, some have chosen not to return to farming; the loss was just too great to recover, either financially or emotionally. But many others, including Missy Young, have decided to re-till the earth as best they can this year, and plant new crops from donated seeds to see what grows.

“I’ve learned more about me and about being a human being in that garden than I ever did teaching school or anything else that I have done,” Young said. “Just to have that and to watch things grow and to be able to bless people with food is just the best thing.”

Farmers return to their fields after the flood

By Ivy Brashear
UK Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Many Eastern Kentucky farmers and large-scale gardeners hit by the July 2022 flood have returned to their fields this season, despite devastating losses caused by the disaster. While some decided they could not come back, others, who lost equipment, herds of animals, and heirloom seeds from the first of their ancestors in America, couldn’t turn away.

Farming for many is a way to supplement their existing household income, rather than a full-time job, according to Jennifer Weeber, Community Farm Alliance Northfork Local Food Coordinator. But even still, farmers say growing and herding have helped them heal and have been a way for them to get back to a sense of normalcy.

Missy Young took this photo of her green beans, sunflowers and more.
Missy Young is one of the farmers who couldn’t walk away. On one sweltering June day on Troublesome Creek in Perry County, she pointed out the few cherry and hazelnut trees still standing on her 11-acre farm and the now distinctive lean they have – a clear sign they were under churning flood waters for hours. She had a whole row of each planted, but the flood only left her with a few. “The flood didn’t take any of these girls,” she said. “They have strong roots.”

After the flood, “They were laid over with so much debris on them,” Young said. When some University of Kentucky students came to help clean up and shook debris off the trees, something she had been unable to do in the chaos of immediate recovery, “I could have cried seeing them do that.”

Her fields are a changed landscape from the one she began cultivating nine years ago, but she isn’t about to give up on it. In fact, she and her fiancé, Donny, only finalized buying the farm after the flood came and went.

“We’ve sunk a fortune into this place just keeping it up,” Young said, adding that there’s something special about the land that keeps them rooted to it. “There’s just a connection to it.”

Eastern Kentucky has long relied on subsistence farming. Whatever industry came and went, the people relied on home-grown fruit and vegetables and self-raised animals for sustenance. In summer, crops were grown, in early fall they were harvested and preserved for winter to help families feed themselves through the cold weather. Seeds were saved and barns were built so they could repeat this pattern the following year.

It's a tradition that’s still very much alive in this region for many families, who still grow gardens in flat bottoms close to creeks, or feet from their homes in small plots. This is why the harvests of so many in the hardest hit counties of Breathitt, Knott, Letcher and Perry were destroyed in the flood.

It could seem to some that such a loss is not worth recouping given the potential risk of another flood that could wipe it all away. But this is the reality that farmers willingly accept time and again, says University of Kentucky Breathitt County Extension Agent Reed Graham.

“To put a seed in the ground in the spring and expect to harvest something in the fall, you have to be pretty optimistic to begin with,” he said.

Graham said farmers are focused on the future because every year is a clean and unpredictable slate. A farmer never knows how their crops will fare, even without a major climate disaster making things more difficult and unpredictable.

“You’ve got ups and downs in any business,” Graham said. “But in the agriculture business, you’ve got that every year. It’s either too dry, too wet, too hot, too cold. You just have to deal with it.”

Many farmers replanted in the same fields that were flooded last year, using borrowed equipment and donated seeds, and in some cases, while they continue to make repairs on their homes which were also damaged in the flood.

Knott County Extension Agent Chad Conway owns and operates his family farm, Holliday Farms, in the Perry County community of Ary, also on Troublesome. His mother still lives in the old farmhouse, which took on a couple feet of water in the flood. Most of the last year has been spent remodeling the home back to livable condition.

The farm has been in the family since 1865, and the Conways felt that leaving was not an option. Conway said it’s a hard decision for any family to take a buy-out and leave land that has passed through generations, but staying and rebuilding in a place that might get flooded again is also hard.

“When you look at buying things and putting things back in areas that got flooded, you look at it much differently because you lost so much and you can’t afford to lose again,” he said. “Your comfort level is going to be several years away from where you feel comfortable.”

In all the family documentation from the beginning of their farm to today, there is no mention of a flood like the one in 2022. Its unprecedented nature, Conway said, means recovery will take a lot more effort and time than anyone is used to.

On his own farm, there is much work still to do. Hay fields still have debris, and fences still need to be rebuilt. He’s finding things all the time that need to be done, but he’s not giving up, and UK Extension is helping them and other farmers return to their fields.

Extension offered free soil testing to any farmer or gardener whose fields were under flood waters to ensure it is safe for growing crops. Once they were sure there were not heavy metals in the soil, Conway said they felt confident telling growers they could use their fields again about six months after the flood.

“They’re happy to be back out and getting fresh tomatoes and peas this spring,” he said. “Hopefully they can get back to what they enjoy: their backyard gardens and putting food away and enjoying that comfort food in the winter months to come.”

But even with all the help, the flood was very hard for many farmers and gardeners to cope with.

Louise Murtaugh, who manages the Letcher County Farmers’ Market manager, said the flood was devastating to her sellers. Most days in the weeks afterward, they came to her wanting a sympathetic ear and a person they could talk to about their experiences. One farmer in particular would seek Murtaugh out.

“A lot of times, all she wanted was a hug,” Murtaugh said.

For that very reason, Grow Appalachia Coordinator Kelsey Cloonan said Hindman Settlement School in Knott County allowed two therapists to station there after the flood.

“When folks are going through the distribution areas and getting supplies, stuff just comes up,” Cloonan said. “Stories come up and people need support.”

In addition to mental-health support, farmers and gardeners received physical support from Grow Appalachia and other nonprofits, and through mutual aid. Cloonan said one farmer in Laurel County, Wayne Riley, drove refrigerated truck loads of produce into flood-impacted counties for home canners to use and preserve.

Others brought truckloads of hay to farmers whose hay fields had been inundated with water, said Perry County Extension Agent Charles May. It was this farmer-to-farmer mutual aid that helped get Eastern Kentucky famers through the hardest parts of those first months of recovery, Cloonan said.

“I think farmers are amazing,” she said. “I really think that people who truly know how to take care of the land and be in relationship with the land know how to take care of people and be in relationship with people.”

Cloonin said farmers are adapting and trying to find ways to be more resilient, in anticipation of increased flooding in the region. Some are investing in temporary fencing that would be less burdensome to replace, and Grow Appalachia is encouraging farmers to be more resilient by diversifying their crops  and growing in woodlands and other higher ground.

There is also a new coalition forming this summer with the help of a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant that will increase regenerative agriculture education and practices in Harlan, Letcher, Pike and Martin counties. Grow Appalachia says it will keep encouraging soil and water testing to ensure the flood did no lasting damage to farmers’ fields.

“Farmers already have to adapt to change in the weather,” Cloonin said, “but these things help them think more about the extremes of what could happen and prepare the best they can.”

One thing about Eastern Kentucky farmers and gardeners that won’t change is the healing power of getting their hands dirty planting or completing other familiar tasks that make them feel normal, said Jennifer Weeber.

Weeber has worked with farmers in the region for years and says it will take a lot to keep most of them from farming.

“This is home, this is an important way of life, this is a way to connect to the earth and to one’s history and one’s community,” she said. “I think most gardeners and farmers I know are some of the most stubborn, persistent, creative, intelligent folks I know, and they’re going to keep moving forward.”

Missy Young is moving forward. She’s been doing that for years anyway, to get her through recovery (she says she’s been sober from opiates for 11 years), to keep her from giving up when her brother Jesse died of a fentanyl overdose in 2020, and now to keep her motivated to rebuild 2nd Chance Homestead farm, so named for her life motto that you “never waste a second chance.”

“It was really messed up, and I hope and pray that it never happens again,” she said. “But I can do something good with that, or I can let it crush me.”

Her fields are different now. Sunflowers rise far from where she planted them last year; tomatoes and white half-runner beans grow from donated seeds; and invasive weeds frustrate her. But there are also flowers she’s never grown before, like black-eyed Susans, popping up alongside the volunteer sunflowers.

 “This is the first year we’ve ever seen them.”

The first year, but not the last, because Young will keep farming this land, taking advantage of her latest second chance.

Ivy Brashear holds the Institute for Rural Journalism's David Hawpe Fellowship in Appalachian Reporting, named for the late Courier-Journal editor and reporter who was a native of Pike County. Brashear, a native of Perry County, is a Ph.D. student in the UK College of Communication and Information. 

Small site near Whitesburg could be first one fully occupied by flood victims 

Update, June 30: Gov. Beshear announced the project, saying it would accommodate 10 homes and be named Cottages at Thompson Branch.

By Ivy Brashear
University of Kentucky Institute for Rural Journalism

Letcher County has given the state a 3.5-acre tract near Whitesburg to be used for a small housing development for victims of the July 2022 flood. It seems likely to be the first fully occupied such development.

The site, known as the Marlowe property, is on Sandlick Creek, less than a mile outside the Whitesburg city limits. The county fiscal court voted to transfer the property to the state at a special meeting May 25.

The site is just big enough for 8 to 10 housing units, and is far smaller than donated sites in Perry and Knott counties that the state is also developing for housing. However, it’s smaller and will use modular housing, so it could be completed before the larger sites. It has already been leveled, and a road is in place. Homes at the site will be connected to City of Whitesburg sewers, and Letcher County water.

A source close to the project, who did not want to be named because Gov. Andy Beshear is planning an announcement about it soon, said the state is working directly with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on it.

FEMA will provide the one, two and three-bedroom homes, which will eventually be rooted to permanent, solid foundations that can withstand future disasters, the source said.

Some infrastructure improvements must be made to the site, including water and sewer lines and other utilities, but for the most part the site is ready to go, the source said, adding that local officials, the Beshear administration and FEMA have already done much work to make the site ready for development.

The source said all involved in the project want to ensure the development is a place where people displaced by the floods will want to live and call home, rather than a place where they must live because there are no other options, so the Marlowe project will be designed with that in mind, with beautification in the plan.

Letcher County has hired five engineering firms to work as a team and develop a comprehensive recovery plan for the county. Lexington-based QK4 Inc. was brought in to help consider infrastructure needs in the plan and potential future projects. While it is not working directly on the Marlowe project, QK4 Planning and Environmental Project Mana               ger Eunice Holland said the project would likely eventually be included in the comprehensive plan.

“Our job is to identify and develop a comprehensive plan to help the community recover from the flooding events and also be more resilient for future flooding events,” Holland said.

The plan will consider existing and incomplete infrastructure, housing and economic development projects, in addition to new projects that need to be addressed after the flood. They will also help county and city officials apply for grants that could help with projects while the plan is still being developed. Holland said they hope to have a completed plan within a year.

“If we’re a few months in, and we know of a source of funding they can apply for, we’ll help them,” Holland said. “We’re not going to wait because we don’t have time to wait.”

That’s why the state is trying to move quickly to build new housing for people impacted by the flood, because there is little time to waste, said the source who did not want to be named. All housing development projects led by the state are intended to move people to higher ground, out of floodplains.

Steep terrain in Letcher County has made it difficult to find enough flatter and higher ground for larger developments, Letcher County Judge-Executive Terry Adams told The Mountain Eagle of Whitesburg in discussing the transfer of the Marlowe property.

The property was donated to the county 20 years ago as the site of an animal shelter, but the county joined a regional shelter instead. In the wake of the flood, and the housing crisis it worsened, the fiscal court and state officials revisited the site to consider it as a possible housing development.

The Mountain Eagle reported May 31 that Beshear’s deputy communications director, Scottie Ellis, said the governor plans to make an announcement about the project “in the near future.”

State hires two firms to plan and manage development of housing on former surface-mine sites

By Ivy Brashear
University of Kentucky Institute for Rural Journalism

The state has hired two engineering firms to plan and develop housing at two Eastern Kentucky sites for survivors from last summer’s devastating floods. Both are on former surface mines, and Gov. Andy Beshear indicated that others could be announced soon.

Beshear said Thursday that H.A. Spalding Engineers of Hazard will design infrastructure, including utilities, roads, bridges and sidewalks, at both sites. Bell Engineering, headquartered in Lexington, will design and manage development of homes, civic facilities and mixed-use residential buildings.

The two “high-ground communities” will be built on sites in Perry and Knott counties. The Knott County site is close to the Talcum community, near the Perry County line, and totals 75 acres. This property was donated by Shawn and Tammy Adams and could expand to nearly 300 acres. The Perry County site, 50 acres donated by the Ison family, is about five miles from downtown Hazard.

Beshear repeated that his administration is looking for more sites and said he hoped to have “a good update on that in the next week to two.”

Money from the Team Eastern Kentucky Fund will jump-start the project. The fund is also being used to partially finance small-project house construction with the help of local nonprofits. A Letcher County home was started in March, and four more are in the works.

Many victims are still in temporary housing; 114 households are still living in travel trailers, four are still living in hotels, and 14 are in state parks, according to the Commonwealth Sheltering Program.

The Spalding and Bell firms will coordinate with the state, Kentucky Housing Corp. and local nonprofits. Lisa Townes of H.A. Spalding said they look forward to the opportunity to be a part of building new communities for Eastern Kentuckians.

“All of us . . . know someone who lost their home and all their possessions, so this is very, very meaningful to us,” she said.

What kind of community?

Mark Arnold of Bell Engineering said his company is committed to building a residential community that “captures the spirit, heritage and history of Appalachia.”

“That’s where many of us were born, and where many of our families are from, and that’s what’s important to us,” Arnold said, adding that the firm doesn’t want to “build subdivisions where people live because they don’t have a choice [but] build places where people want to put down roots, build real community, and begin to really re-establish their lives.”

The state is “trying to build places where people want to relocate,” Public Protection Cabinet General Counsel Jacob Walbourn said at the East Kentucky Leadership Conference in Hazard on April 28. “Telling people in Eastern Kentucky they have to move is very dangerous, because it’ll create a lot of resentment.”

Though officials say no one will be forced to move into the developments, Anna Eldridge, one of the young people invited to speak on a panel at the conference, opposes the plan though her family is still living in a trailer while they rebuild.

The high-school senior said she feels like it will cause more problems than it will fix, that there won’t be enough room for everyone in her Letcher County community to move, and she fears a loss of jobs in the community if people leave.

More than anything, she’s afraid such developments will take away from people the very things that she thinks makes living in Eastern Kentucky worthwhile.

“Eastern Kentucky is not about having all kinds of city things. It's about being able to go out in nature and explore and be outside, and you won't be able to do this on a strip job,” she said. “I feel like they are trying to city-fy something that shouldn't be.”

Eldridge advocates rebuilding where individuals’ houses once were, in a creative way that incorporates approaches from other places where people have lived with and near flooding for generations.

However, state officials are focused on rebuilding homes out of floodplains, and this means moving to higher ground.

More money needed

Walbourn said at the conference that one of the biggest barriers is money. He said that for every dollar donated to the Team Western Kentucky Fund after that region’s 2021 tornadoes, only a quarter was donated to the Eastern Kentucky fund. There is about $13 million in the Eastern Kentucky fund, while the Western Kentucky fund has $52 million.

“I hope we as a state can come together to commit to Eastern Kentucky to do [rebuilding] right,” Walbourn said. “We need to stack and marshal resources.”

That’s why donations of land for housing projects are critical. They save the state money it would otherwise use to buy property and allows it to use those funds to hire engineering firms and others to manage development.

Arnold said he and his team are on the job as of Thursday’s announcement and are excited to get started. He was already thinking about new and different ways to design and build high-ground housing developments in Eastern Kentucky before the flood, so when Spalding reached out to bring in Bell as a partner, he leapt at the chance.

“We’re super excited and can’t wait to jump in,” Arnold said.

One of the first things Arnold said he wants to do is talk with flood survivors about what they want and need, so Bell can better understand their perspectives, and potentially implement those things in their designs. Arnold has worked with local partners in Mayfield for more than a year on plans for their downtown rebuild after a December 2021 tornado, and said working in Eastern Kentucky will likely be different because the flood is still recent in many minds.

“When you come into a community that’s been devastated, it’s a different process,” he said. “You have to understand they’re dealing with trauma, and they may not be willing to talk yet” about plans for the future.

He said the projects in Perry and Knott counties are already well on their way, and that Team Kentucky and the myriad state agencies who have worked on them are handing the projects over with everything necessary in place and well-organized.

“We’re moving forward at a really good pace,” he said. “even though it doesn’t feel like it if you live there.”

Young people from Eastern Kentucky share their flood stories, and their ideas and hopes for the future

At the East Kentucky Leadership Conference, high-school students from southeastern Kentucky discussed the impact of last summer’s flood. Left to right: Mark Riley, Laken Napier, Shayla Riley, Jesse Stamper, Sawyer Noe, Kelsey Goins, Anna Eldridge and Hannah Damron. The moderator, standing, is Kelli Moore of Partners for Rural Impact. (Photo by Peter Hille)

By Ivy Brashear
University of Kentucky Institute for Rural Journalism

Young Eastern Kentuckians shared their stories, ideas and hopes for the future of their communities at the 35th annual East Kentucky Leadership Conference in Hazard April 27-28.

At a conference focused on the July 2022 flood that devastated communities in four counties, young voices rang crystal clear in the retelling of harrowing escapes as the waters rose, community care after they receded, and the lasting impacts on their lives – as high-school students returning to campuses after a global pandemic and a disaster attributed to climate change.

Each of the eight students on the first day’s panel were directly impacted by the flood.

Mark Riley and his sister, Shayla, of Buckhorn High School in Perry County, were at soccer practice when the rain started July 28. Their home quickly became an island. It was night and the power was out, so seeing how to rescue neighbors was nearly impossible.

Sawyer Noe’s stepfather used the light from lightning strikes to guide them toward people who needed help that night in Knott County, and Kelsey Goins’ family had to bust windows from her grandmother’s home to rescue her. Goins is a Jenkins High School student.

Anna Eldridge, a Jenkins senior, was home alone when the flood came. By the time she got her dog and came back into her living room, her house had three to four feet of water.

“It was surprising because our houses are actually higher up from the ground and the creek,” she said.

Eldridge, her mother and her sister lived in a home behind her grandmother’s on about an acre of land backing up to a mountain, with a small creek about 10 feet below average ground level flowing by.

“The fact that the water even got in [our houses] is crazy,” she said.

But the North Fork of the Kentucky River is about a mile away, so their home was in the direct path of the flood, she said, and it did get in. After Eldridge retrieved her dog and used a kayak to rescue her grandmother, they watched from the road above as their lives became consumed by floodwaters, helpless to prevent it.

But like so many in Eastern Kentucky after that night, Eldridge was anything but helpless when the waters receded. Communities came together to muck out homes and help distribute supplies. People who “never got out of their houses” came to help, she said, including young children and, of course, teenagers from Jenkins High School. They came together to do “whatever needed to be done.”

“Everyone in our community was affected for the most part,” she said. “They may not all have the same stories, but they were all affected in some way.”

Soon after the flood, Eldridge and her family moved into a temporary trailer where her house once stood and they are still living in the one-bedroom camper today. With three people and two dogs, the space is far from ideal.

But she said the family is rebuilding a house on the property “as we speak.” They hope to be back into a permanent home by the end of summer.

“Letcher County is home,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a house or not. The place is the home.”

All students featured at the conference continue to feel the impacts of the flood in their education. Several schools were flooded, including Buckhorn High, where the water reached the ceiling, and Knott County Central, which took on enough water to damage the floors throughout the building.

The school year was pushed back, starting in September instead of August, to allow time for mucking out and necessary repairs. Students from Buckhorn had to relocate 45 minutes away, to an old elementary school in Hazard, because the damage was so extensive. They share that space with students from Robinson Elementary School; its old building was destroyed in the flood of Troublesome Creek.

Letcher County Central High School took in an elementary school that was completely flooded. And in Knott County, the vocational and technical college was destroyed, forcing those students to move into the high school. The tight quarters have created tension among students and added stress in a time of almost constant worry.

“There is tremendous heartbreak in our students and teachers,” said Sawyer Noe, a student at Knott County Central.

Before July 28, many students, including Hunter Combs, a junior at Knott Central, were ready to experience their first “normal” year of school after not being able to attend for much of the past three years due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I have not known a high school year without issues,” Combs said.

He said he has always been “a big school kid” who loved going to school, but the last three years have left their mark.

“From the pandemic, and then the floods, people have been impacted mentally,” he said. “It’s been really hard to recover.”

Eldridge was looking forward to her senior year at Jenkins being normal after the pandemic. She hoped to finish her high-school softball career and get to spend plenty of time with her friends before graduating and leaving for college, but the flood changed everything.

Because school started late, the curriculum was truncated and sped up, making it hard to absorb, Eldridge said. Her mother lost her tax documents in the flood, which meant she couldn’t apply for federal student aid until mid-February, and she’s worried about the amount she might get because funds are allocated on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Applying for college also had to wait until November and December – after some schools’ deadline had passed. Eldridge says she constantly feels the stress of it all. But mostly, she’s sad to have missed time with her friends.

“We’re fixing to be adults, and we’re missing all those interaction with our friends,” she said. They’re getting to make memories together now, she said, but they are all still impacted mentally by the flood and its aftermath.

Kelli Moore moderated both youth panels after working with the high schoolers for six months. She said their stories have “echoed in her head” since those first meetings last fall, and we need to listen to what they want and need.

“We've been in hurry as adults to get back to normal because we thought that's what [the students] wanted and needed, but maybe it's not. They are very resilient, our students, but we need to be mindful of what they’re asking for,” said Moore, who works for Partners for Rural Impact, a Berea-based nonprofit that says it specializes in place-based partnerships for student opportunity and success.

What the students are asking for is gathering places in their communities where they can be with friends; affordable housing for themselves and their neighbors’; well-paying jobs with good benefits; and a return to community togetherness. They see the tragedy of the flood as an opportunity to rebuild their communities for the better.

“There is no better time to build back better than when everything you have is gone,” Noe said. “We hear people say the community will never be the same, but just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s bad or it can’t be better.”

But many will need help to make that happen. Hannah Damron of Jenkins High School said community members don’t have money or time to fix or rebuild their houses – a concern shared by her fellow panelists. They also agreed that the jobs available to people in Eastern Kentucky don’t allow for much beyond living paycheck to paycheck.

Eldridge said most people in Letcher County who aren’t in education or health care are working in fast-food jobs or trade jobs that require them to travel outside the county.

“We can’t make a living here and make it feel like we’re making a difference,” she said. “We need good jobs with good benefits so people can live a good life.”

Most of the students said they would stay in Eastern Kentucky if they could access their dream jobs in their communities.

Moore said she learned many things from the students over the six months she worked with them, and one thing was clear: They love their communities and they want to stay in them.

“The number one thing that attracts them to Eastern Kentucky is community,” she said.

The students want the flood and the aftermath to be a lesson about the power of community in the region.

“Our community will be the glue that keeps us together,” Eldridge said, adding that this is especially true with young people. “We will pull us together and get us rebuilding better."

Ivy Brashear holds the Institute for Rural Journalism's David Hawpe Fellowship in Appalachian Reporting , named for the late Courier-Journal editor and reporter who was a native of Pike County. Brashear, a native of Perry County, is a Ph.D. student in the UK College of Communication and Information. She will be reporting in the region for the next several weeks, so if you have story ideas for her, you may email her here.

2016 reports

SOAR Innovation Summit showcases good things happening in Eastern Ky.

By Al Cross
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
University of Kentucky
               PIKEVILLE, Ky. – The experiment and rescue mission that is Shaping Our Appalachian Region entered a third phase Monday by hosting an inspiring showcase of good things that are happening in Appalachian Kentucky.
               The SOAR Innovation Summit had its usual diet of Kentucky politicians and federal officials, headlined by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler and Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
               But the real stars of the show June 6 at the Eastern Kentucky Exposition Center were nonprofits, businesses, educators and taxpayer-funded agencies that are advancing, or trying to advance, the SOAR goal of diversifying the region’s economy when its leading industry is in a historic slide.
               The presenters included a business where laid-off coal miners write computer code, a high-tech entrepreneur who said he will hire 50 trainees from Eastern Kentucky, education programs sparking student interest in science and technical fields, a nonprofit trying to turn the region’s agriculture into a local food system, a foundation that has leased a reclaimed strip mine to create a world-class wildlife park, and a citizens’ group that is using faith-based approaches to fight a range of community problems.
               And that was just a selection of the dozens of exhibitors who were “showcasing the solutions of our region,” which SOAR defined as the subject matter of the meeting.
               “Do you believe more now than you did two hours ago?” Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, a sort of official cheerleader, asked the crowd of more than 1,000 after the presentations. Most seemed to indicate that they did.
               Bevin drew special attention because during his campaign last year he did not publicly embrace SOAR, a 2013 creation of then- Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, and 5th District U.S. Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers (R-Somerset), chair of the House Appropriations Committee.
               In their first board meeting as SOAR co-chairs, Bevin made plain to Rogers that he would limit to Eastern Kentucky the plan for a statewide broadband network – which Beshear and Rogers had sold to the 2014 General Assembly as a vehicle to improve high-speed Internet service in the region.
               Rogers told the crowd that he and others had wondered about Bevin’s attitude toward the effort, but said the governor has “unvarnished enthusiasm for what we’re doing, and called him over for a handshake. “He’s our buddy.”
               With the effort now headed by two Republicans, Rogers maintained that the effort would remain “non-partisan,” and state Senate President Robert Stivers of Manchester cited bipartisan efforts in the recent legislative session as proof.
               His prime example was the use of state coal-severance-tax funds to create an endowment for programs in the region, an idea that had been suggested at the first SOAR summit in December 2013, modeled after one in the Iron Range of Minnesota.
               Bevin said, “It’s something, frankly, I wish we had started 10 or 20 years ago.”
               Stivers said the endowment was a sign that SOAR is gradually creating “a world where people are no longer worried about party affiliation or county lines.” In earlier meetings, Rogers said overcoming county rivalries would be the effort’s main obstacle.
               Stivers was followed by the stars of the show, the “innovation showcase” of presenters.                Many if not most were active before SOAR was created, but Rogers said in an interview that it deserves “a lot” of the credit for the innovative activity because it has created an encouraging environment for entrepreneurship in an area where the dominance of the coal industry suppressed it for a century.
The presenters included:
·        Ankur Gopal, head of Interapt, who announced to applause that his tech firm “is hiring in Eastern Kentucky,” with 50 slots for training at Big Sandy Community and Technical College’s Paintsville campus.
·        Rusty Justice of BitSource, a Pikeville firm that does web applications with code written by nine ex-miners. “The most valuable resource in Eastern Kentucky is not its coal,” he said, “but the men and women who work to produce that coal.” Lynn Parrish, the firm’s other co-founder, said in an interview that writing code “is a trade, like mining coal.”
·        Jeff Hawkins, executive director of the Hazard-based Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, recipient of many state and federal grants for innovative programs in schools and a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation collaboration. He also showed a video in which Paul Green, a leader of KVEC’s Appalachian Renaissance Initiative, said the main export from Eastern Kentucky has not been coal, but its people.
·        Brad Thomas of East Kentucky Power Cooperative, which has mounted an effort to steer students into science, technology, engineering and math and “create the largest STEM-based workforce in the United States,” starting with national board certification for teachers of those subjects.
·        Aleta Botts, executive director of the Kentucky Center for Agriculture and Rural Development, which helps farmers with business plans, marketing and so on. “We have enormous opportunities in this region,” a 21-county area of southeastern Kentucky with 5,000 farms, she said.
·        David Ledford of the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation, which wants to create a 12,000-acre wildlife park with elk, bear, deer and 240 bird species on the reclaimed Mountain Drive Coal Co. surface mine in Bell County. He said projections based on an elk park in Pennsylvania, are that it would generate $124 million a year in tourism spending.
·        Eric Mills, an Inez lawyer who talked about Martin County’s faith-based efforts to address its social and economic problems, “not just an economic poverty but a spiritual deficit.”
·        Jeff Whitehead of Teleworks USA, which he said has placed 250 Eastern Kentucky residents in telecommuting jobs. He said the potential of that sort of work is limited only by “our imagination and our Internet access.”
Wheeler, the FCC chair, said high-speed Internet “is the most important commodity for the 21st Century.” Coal was “the essential commodity” in the two previous centuries “because the economy ran on it. The information economy of the 21st Century runs on high-speed broadband, and if you don’t have that commodity you’re not part of the new economy.”
Wheeler noted the efforts of Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative, which has extended high-speed fiber-optic cable to all its customers (including 150 of the Teleworks clients) with the help of federal loans, economic-stimulus grants and the FCC’s Universal Service Fund, which it recently shifted to broadband from basic telephone service. He said the experience proves “If you can do it here, you can do it anywhere.”

Led by UK, health-care interests contribute to SOAR, pledge work in prevention

By Boone Proffitt
University of Kentucky

How can bricks and mortar in Lexington address the health problems in Appalachian Kentucky?

That’s what some people may have asked March 9, when Gov. Steve Beshear signed into law a bill authorizing $132.5 million in bonds to finance half of a medical research building at the University of Kentucky.

Part of the answer may have come the next day, when UK signed on as the top sponsor of a nonprofit, bipartisan effort to help Appalachian Kentucky’s failing economy. UK will pay Shaping Our Appalachian Region $100,000 a year for each of the next three years.

UK is best known as source of treatment for the health problems that SOAR has identified as an obstacle to the region’s development. With the new research building and the SOAR partnership, it will be more involved in prevention, UK officials said.

UK President Eli Capilouto said the research facility would emphasize translational science, in which discoveries in the building’s laboratories would be applied to the communities where health issues are most prevalent.

UK spokesman Jay Blanton said, “The idea behind translational science, an area where UK is a leader, is to take discoveries from the lab and get them into communities where they become solutions.”

Blanton added, “Sponsorship sends a statement that the university wants to be actively engaged in the region. But, the larger goal of this partnership and others in Appalachia is for the university to establish the care needs, best practices, protocols for health care in the region.”

Top causes of preventable death, such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and cancer, are high in Appalachian Kentucky.

In order to fully address these health disparities, some university researchers say, they must go outside the labs in Lexington. That’s where their commitment could turn into something more tangible: a partnership that comes at a time when the health issues facing Appalachia are high profile.

Top of SOAR home page (partial view)
This partnership expanded when Baptist Health agreed to commit time, expertise, and funding to the SOAR initiative in late April to help improve health conditions in Appalachian Kentucky. Baptist Health will contribute $50,000 a year over the next three years, and was the first health care provider to sign on as a SOAR founding partner. Its has three hospitals serving Appalachia, in Lexington, Richmond and Corbin.

Under the agreement, Baptist Health will investigate “proactive strategies” to address prevention issues, including distribution of pedometers to encourage more physical activity, according to Baptist Health spokesman Cary Willis.

Other key players in Kentucky health have signed on to support SOAR. The University of Louisville and KentuckyOne Health, which share a hospital, have agreed to become joint presenting partners, each paying $100,000 a year for each of the next three years. And as a result, they are embracing a “public mandate to improve the lives of the people of Kentucky,” said U of L President James Ramsey. “Working with SOAR is a significant opportunity for us to partner with others throughout the state to achieve that mandate in a region of the commonwealth that needs the most assistance.”

Ruth Brinkley, president and CEO of KentuckyOne Health, said, “Through our hospitals and clinics in Martin, Berea, Mount Sterling and London, we are closely tied to the unique health challenges and barriers to care. Through our relationship with U of L, now by partnering together with SOAR, we will expand our collaboration with Appalachian communities, utilizing the breadth of our patient services, wellness programs and community resources to truly make a difference.”

Pikeville Medical Center has also signed on as a presenting partner, and two other health-related companies are founding partners: Aetna Inc., the health-insurance company that is seeking approval to buy Louisville-based Humana Inc.; and Passport Health Plan, the Louisville-based Medicaid managed-care firm, which recently expanded statewide.

Appalachian Kentucky residents have cited problems communicating with health-care professionals in regard to prevention efforts, despite UK conducting much research in Appalachian Kentucky over the years. Recently, though, UK has become a regional leader in focusing on the neighborhoods, local support systems, and trusted networks of Appalachians to promote screening and disease prevention, said Dr. Nancy Schoenberg, a UK medical anthropologist and gerontologist who has worked with churches and local leaders in Letcher County to improve cancer screening.

“If I can address a problem with a scientific basis, then any policy or program could be replicated in response,” Schoenberg said. “It can be applied to new communities, and it’s a cost-effective orientation. We don’t have to constantly create new policies and programs and test them out – we can just apply them.”

The sponsorship agreement between UK and SOAR does not mention research, outreach, or even engagement in Appalachia. In the contract’s most basic interpretation, UK and SOAR established “a funding commitment to continue our mission in Appalachian Kentucky,” said Jared Arnett, SOAR’s executive director. “Our partnerships are established as corporate partners, so it’s a marketing relationship.”

The contract outlines usage and approval guidelines for institutional logos: UK can use SOAR service marks and logos, and SOAR can use UK service marks and logos. Each symbol can be used with names and marks of other organizations that each partner is affiliated with, including hospital partners serving the counties in the SOAR service area. This means that UK is free to leverage the UK Healthcare brand in the region.

UK’s involvement with health centers and primary care providers “gives SOAR grassroots connections to people who are on the ground and see the issues every day,” Arnett said. “Having local hospitals and clinics involved that understand the mix of local and community health issues and the challenges they face every day informs us, so we can act on and put together policy recommendations, partnerships, or have conversations about issues we can further identify.”

SOAR’s policy recommendations have come through its working groups, which held public forums last summer. The working group on health has identified health problems as obstacles to the region’s economic development. This group included four UK faculty members, and was chaired by Nikki Stone of Hazard, a professor of dentistry and medicine.

“SOAR creates the venue for health-care organizations and institutions to comes together around the table and take off their institutional hats and put on their SOAR hats, their regional hats, their community hats,” said Arnett. “We all work together to address some of these systemic issues and the common challenges throughout the Appalachian Kentucky region – issues that reach across county and development-district lines.”

Boone Proffitt is a junior engineering major at the University of Kentucky. He is writing stories about Appalachian Kentucky as part of a general-education requirement, under direction of Associate Extension Professor Al Cross in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications.

2015 reports

SOAR Advisory Council has first meeting; will focus on jobs

By Melissa Patrick
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
University of Kentucky

SLADE, Ky. – The issue-oriented advisory council for the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative held its first meeting Monday, Aug. 10, at Natural Bridge State Park and collectively decided that each of their issue groups should focus on how it could contribute to bringing more jobs to the Kentucky's 54 Appalachian counties.

"What resonates and what everyone is in agreement with is the jobs," SOAR Executive Director Jared Arnett said. "That is what they think SOAR is, is creating jobs and economic opportunity and that (is the) expectation. . . . So at the end of the day, jobs is the goal, and everything else is how do we support that goal."

SOAR is a bipartisan effort to lift Appalachian Kentucky's economy. The nonprofit organization was created last year by Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican 5th District U.S. Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers of Somerset.

Arnett noted that SOAR is not the first group, nor the only group, to work toward improving the quality of life in Appalachia, but said that it is an organization that could serve as the connector of these groups.

"SOAR is not just an economic development organization, it is a change agent that connects all of these groups to get the work done," Arnett said. "Part of it is resources, but I think the bigger piece of it is connections."

The Advisory Council is scheduled to meet quarterly to discuss opportunities and challenges in the region; to make sure each of the groups are working in a spirit of collaboration and communication; and to offer advice to the executive board of directors.

The original working groups are: Agriculture, Community & Regional Foods; Broadband; Business Incubation; Business Recruitment; Education and Retraining; Health; Infrastructure; Leadership Development & Youth Engagement; Regional Collaboration & Identity; and Tourism, including Natural Resources, Arts & Heritage. Arnett referred to them as focus groups, no longer working groups.

"These 10 areas of focus are the building blocks, the foundation of how to change that map," he said, referring to an Appalachian Regional Commission map showing that Kentucky has far more economically distressed counties than any other Appalachian state.

Dr. William Hacker, the new chair of the health group, summed up how all of the focus groups must work together to create an economically vibrant and healthy region.

"Economic opportunity is the cornerstone of getting people jobs and employment," he said. "That then requires good education. Those two combined set the stage for people to pay more attention to their own health and the health of their community."

Community engagement was a common theme throughout the meeting, which is meant to be achieved through annual "roundtables" held by each of the focus group chairs.

These meetings will include invited guests specific to the topic at hand and will be open to the public to "capture and gather new ideas," Arnett said. The groups determined their main objectives last year, and through the roundtables will focus on how to best implement their objectives.

"Roundtables will re-engage the community and keep them interested in your area of focus," Arnett said.

The formats of these meetings will vary to best suit the needs of the group, including an online webinar. The SOAR website is also being updated to allow, among other things, a more obvious place for public comment.

Most of the group chairs voiced that they would like to see more involvement from young people. The council committed to exploring new ways to include this demographic that one member said was so important because they "are our future."

SOAR prepares to be a verb, not just a noun

By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky
ANNVILLE, Ky. – The bipartisan effort to lift Appalachian Kentucky’s economy is moving from its organizational phase into its first operational phase as it looks ahead to the departure of a co-founder.
Shaping Our Appalachian Region was created last year by Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who will leave office in December, and Republican 5th District U.S. Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers of Somerset. Both major-party nominees for governor say they will continue to support SOAR, but any such effort has pitfalls to avoid and promises to keep.
There were hints of that at the July 21 meeting of the SOAR Executive Committee, near Annville at the offices of Jackson Energy Cooperative, as the committee:
·        welcomed a former state health commissioner to the long-vacant position of SOAR’s leader for health, the specific topic that may have generated the most controversy in the organizational phase;
·        approved SOAR’s first big contract, with a Louisville public-relations firm that will “make this a movement of the people,” as one associate of the firm put it; and
·        heard a member push for hiring of people from the region as the state begins construction on a big project for high-speed Internet service.
Dr. William Hacker
(For a profile of him, click here)
The new health chair and member of the SOAR Advisory Council is Dr. William Hacker, a retired pediatrician who was named commissioner of the state Department of Public Health under Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher and kept the job under Beshear.
He succeeds Dr. Nikki Stone of Hazard, who left the post after her Health Working Group made two major recommendations driven by people who had attended its public forums: a coordinated health program in schools, and a study of the health effects of large-scale surface mining, which studies have suggested could be significant.
When the recommendations of the health group and working groups addressing other issues were published last fall, the mining-study recommendation wasn’t included in the list, which was limited to shorter-term recommendations, but was mentioned in the health group’s report. Some other working groups continued to meet over the winter, but the health group did not.
SOAR Executive Director Jared Arnett said after the SOAR Strategy Summit in May that a chief health adviser and working-group chair would be named within two weeks, but Rogers and Beshear missed that deadline by several weeks.
               Introducing Hacker at the meeting, Arnett said most of SOAR’s corporate partners “revolve around health care.” Those include the University of Kentucky, the University of Louisville and KentuckyOne Health, which are presenting partners at $300,000 each; and Pikeville Medical Center, Baptist Health, Passport Health Plan and Aetna Inc., which is buying Humana Inc.
Hacker is a Clay County native who practiced in Corbin and moved to Lexington as vice president of health services for Appalachian Regional Healthcare. “My heart still stays in this part of the world,” he told the executive committee.
He said that when committee member Jim Host asked him to take the health post, “I really didn’t want to volunteer for another job,” but “this is one I could not say no to.” He said he has always been active in public health and economic development in the region.
The soft-spoken Hacker gave few hints about how he will approach the task, other than to suggest he would move carefully and with partners: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. I’m looking forward to going far.”
Arnett said SOAR will have a grant-funded employee and a federal Centers for Disease Control staffer to help Hacker in his work.
He also introduced another new Advisory Council member, Rental Pro owner Doug Jones of Hazard, who will chair the business incubation and entrepreneurship working group.

Communications contract
The executive committee approved the corporate partners’ recommendation of C2 Strategic Communications to do SOAR’s public relations and marketing for $125 an hour with a limit of $200,000, including expenses, for two years.
Chad Carlton, president of the firm, said it is made up of former journalists and focuses on “public affairs, community development and making Kentucky a better place to live.” He noted it has a contract with the state for the Mountain Parkway project.
Carlton introduced C2 Vice President Kerri Richardson, who until recently was Beshear’s communications director; and “strategic partner” Carla Blanton, an independent PR and marketing consultant who was press secretary for Fletcher and is married to UK spokesman Jay Blanton.
“We want to sharpen and focus the message” and “make this a movement of the people,” Blanton told the committee. “We believe SOAR is ready to go from a noun to a verb.”
Richardson said the firm will take the message beyond the region to the media centers of Louisville, Washington and New York; set up a speakers’ bureau; and write speeches and talking points.

Broadband project
Beshear and Rogers announced that ground will be broken Aug. 31 for the state-run broadband project to bring high-speed, high-capacity Internet service within the reach of most communities in rural Kentucky. The Washington Post recently ranked Kentucky last in broadband speed.
The project is managed by Macquarie Capital, an Australian firm with several partners. Its contract with the state calls for 60 percent of the employees on the project to come from Kentucky. Pikeville banker Jean Hale told her fellow committee members that she would like to apply the same minimum in the 54 counties of Appalachian Kentucky that make up the SOAR region.
“That will go a long way in building SOAR’s image of actually getting things done for them,” Hale said.
Host agreed. “If we bring people in to work without giving them an opportunity for jobs,” he said of local people, “that would be a negative.” He said subcontractors should follow the 60 percent rule, and suggested telling Macquarie that the committee would appreciate its best efforts to employ SOAR-area people for SOAR-area work. The committee approved a motion by Hale to that effect.
Beshear, in response to a question, said the state could track the residences of people employed on the project.
State broadband director Brian Kiser said webinars for coal-county community leaders will be held from August through November to build understanding and support for the project. It will not build high-speed lines to customers, but construct the so-called “middle mile” to which local Internet service providers can connect.

A Regional Vision For Eastern Kentucky

By Jason Belcher

The Shaping Our Appalachian Region program, known as SOAR, can’t provide a new regional vision for Eastern Kentucky’s economy; we have to provide it ourselves. Last week the second SOAR conference in Pikeville showcased many of the good programs and work being done to build a better economic future for our region. Inevitably, the second conference proved less exciting than the first, in part because no one offered a comprehensive vision for the future of Eastern Kentucky’s economy.

We did hear about plenty of hope, encouragement, and resources available to our region, and we need to recognize the value of those opportunities rather than focusing on disappointment with SOAR. Those opportunities make Eastern Kentucky a unique place.

There are literally dozens of ways for individuals to access resources to turn their ideas into reality. I’m one of them. Thanks to the Kentucky Innovation Network I’ve been able to start my own business, Appalachian Aerospace, looking to build the next generation of commercial unmanned aerial vehicles. Aerospace is a major growth industry, and commercial drones alone are projected to generate $9 billion in economic activity over the next decade.

Growth industries represent potential building blocks for a regional economy. Because the market segments are global, these industries are capable of sustaining a regional economy through large-scale job creation and revenue in-flows. Capturing a global market segment is a good way to build a strong regional economy capable of providing the jobs we need and the future we want. Morehead State University’s Space Science Center already has a toe hold in the Aerospace field, and our region can leverage that to gain a share of this global market segment.

Eastern Kentucky can position itself to compete for ownership of multiple global market segments if we make the right choices today. Health care is another global market area poised for massive growth. Baby boomers are beginning to retire, and the need for better health care solutions is already skyrocketing. With a major medical school at the University of Pikeville and a thriving aerospace program at Morehead, our region has the chance through regional partnership to build a first-of-its-kind exomedicine program. Medical research in zero gravity holds the potential to create new drugs and treatments for chronic illnesses, the development of which can generate a talent pool capable of spawning dozens of new businesses employing thousands of people in a trillion dollar market.

As a region, our economic future depends on our ability to think globally but act regionally. Aerospace and health care are but two examples of global industries looking for the next region in which to build a new home. If we steer more growth industries here, the result will be an influx of high-tech, high-paying jobs. Programs like SOAR can’t do that for us; but SOAR is a tool that can help us do it ourselves. That means we have a competitive resource advantage over other regions who don’t have SOAR or similar programs. If we use our new programs, resources, and opportunities to capture a share of global market segments, Eastern Kentucky can be an economic powerhouse. That’s a regional vision for our future.

Jason Belcher of Harold, Ky., is the author of Nexus of Innovation: The Promise of Eastern Kentucky.

SOAR Strategy Summit didn't offer much strategy on health

By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

PIKEVILLE, Ky. – Unless they're writing opinion pieces, journalists aren't supposed to take sides. But they do need to speak up when issues of broad community concern aren't being addressed, especially when those concerns have been solicited.

That's what happened Monday at the health session of the "strategy summit" of Shaping Our Appalachian Region, the bipartisan effort to revitalize and diversity Eastern Kentucky's economy, hit hard by loss of half the area's coal jobs.

The session was the first SOAR meeting on health since its Health Working Group, one of several issue-oriented groups, concluded its meetings last summer and made two major recommendations driven by people who had attended its public forums: a coordinated health program in schools, and a study of the health effects of large-scale surface mining, which several studies have suggested could be significant.

After the presentations at the session made no reference to the working group's recommendations, Dee Davis of the Whitesburg-based Center for Rural Strategies asked the moderator/presenter, Jennifer "Jenna" Seymour of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, what if anything was being done about the recommendation. Seymour said she wasn't aware of it.

That dismayed me, since the CDC had detailed Seymour to work on health issues in the region, at the behest of its congressman, Republican Harold "Hal" Rogers, who co-founded SOAR with Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear. So, as Seymour prepared to wrap up the session after a few other questions, I raised my hand and she recognized me.

I mentioned the working group's recommendations, and said it was "disconcerting and almost unbelievable" that she was unaware of the one on mountaintop mining. She replied that she had, in fact, heard about it. (As she noted to a working-group member later, the recommendation didn't make the published list of the groups' recommendations, which were limited to short-term suggestions.)

Noting that the Pike County Fiscal Court Room was nearly full, I told Seymour that a lot of people had attended meetings and made their concerns known, and that even though this issue was "a hot potato," she needed to "go back to the powers that be, and tell them there's a room full of people who want answers."

The Health Working Group has been without a chair since last summer, when it made its recommendations. At least some other working groups continued to meet last fall and winter, SOAR Executive Director Jared Arnett told the closing plenary session. He told my colleague Al Smith over the weekend that a chair for the group would be named in the next two weeks.

Just to be clear: I'm not for or against a study of the health effects of mountaintop mining. It's not as forward-looking as most other working-group recommendations, but the people of the region made pretty clear that they do want answers. Even though the coal industry's influence makes this a hot potato, even Rogers said last summer, to Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader, “We need to know if there’s anything to it, certainly.”

For coverage of the strategy summit from Estep, who focused on the possibilities of computer coding and other high-tech opportunities, click here. Chris Kenning of The Courier-Journal drove from Louisville to make this report. The Pikeville newspaper, the Appalachian News-Express, has five stories on the event, albeit behind a paywall.

2014 reports

University of Kentucky is first 'corporate sponsor' of Shaping Our Appalachian Region

The University of Kentucky is paying $300,000 to become the first corporate sponsor of Shaping our Appalachian Region, an effort to improve Eastern Kentucky's economy started in 2013 by Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers.

"According to the sponsorship agreement, UK will get branding rights and recognition as a SOAR partner, but will not perform any work directly for the group," Linda Blackford reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "UK officials, however, said SOAR dovetails with numerous health-care initiatives underway in Eastern Kentucky led by UK faculty and staff. Currently, UK has some 125 research projects in Appalachia revolving around the five largest causes of preventable deaths: cancer, heart disease, pulmonary disease, stroke and unintentional deaths from accidents, drug abuse and other causes."

"We are not simply the University of Kentucky. We are the university for Kentucky," UK President Eli Capilouto said. "But we have a particularly close relationship and responsibility with and for communities throughout the Appalachian region."

ARC, at 50, has 'serious work to do,' federal co-chair says; especially in the central part, we say

The Appalachian Regional Commission "has helped county economies grow with nearly $4 billion in spending, but the region still lags in key measures of educational, economic and physical well-being," according to a study done for the commission's 50th anniversary, Jonathan Drew reports for The Associated Press. President Lyndon Johnson signed ARC into law on March 9, 1965 as part of his War on Poverty. (AP photo: Johnson visiting Eastern Kentucky in April 1964)

The ARC's mission is to bring Appalachia to socioeconomic parity with the rest of the nation. It has a long way to go. While poverty rates in the region have fallen by about half, "researchers noted that other problems persist, including disproportionately high mortality rates and dependency on government checks," Drew writes. "The commission’s leaders acknowledge that even after half a century, the need for aid is as great as ever, a sentiment echoed by heads of charities in the region." Earl Gohl, the commission’s federal co-chair, told Drew, “We have serious work to do.”
In 1969, Appalachia's per-capita income was 78.7 percent of the national average, with many Central Appalachian counties under 50 percent. (Click on map for larger version) In 2012, the regional percentage was 81.1 percent of the national, "but that’s at least partly because safety-net programs such as Social Security and unemployment make up about 24 percent of personal income in the region, compared to 17 percent nationally," Drew writes.

The report focuses no attention on the neediest part of the region, Central Appalachia, which has been hard-hit recently by job losses in the coal industry. The executive summary of the report doesn't even mention "Central Appalachia," and the subregion gets only three mentions in the 181-page technical report. Central Appalachia as defined by ARC is the counties in yellow on the map above.

Health remains a serious problem, and the region is "losing ground," the report says. Infant mortality rates in the region have dropped significantly, but overall mortality rates remained the same while mortality rates nationally have dropped. "The report cites higher rates of obesity and diabetes in Appalachia as possible contributors," Drew writes. (Click map for larger version)
"Researchers did find that county employment and income levels in the region grew faster than a control group of similar counties elsewhere in the country," Drew reports. "Over the 50-year period, counties that received ARC investment averaged 4.2 percent higher employment growth and 5.5 percent higher per capita income growth than the control group counties."

"The report’s authors estimate that more jobs were created by the ARC in its early years when it received higher funding from the government," Drew writes. The Reagan administration wanted to abolish the agency, but Congress refused. However, "The funding levels changed dramatically, and with that the commission changed dramatically as well," Gohl told Drew. "We moved from large appropriations funding big public works projects. And it’s now, I would say, a leaner commission that focuses on developing strategic partnerships.” (Read more) For the full report, click here.

SOAR executive calls for 'a sustained change of culture and mindset' in Eastern Kentucky

By Al Cross
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

Jared Arnett
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, Feb. 16. “We’re looking for the leaders, the army that will make this happen,” he said. UPDATE: Weather forced postponement of the Strategy Summit.

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 Jan. 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 will 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.”

UPDATE, Feb. 11: In an op-ed in the Lexington Herald-Leader, Arnett decries "a lack of collective ownership by those who live and work in our communities." In a column in the same paper, the Herald-Leader's Tom Eblen says the SOAR Strategy Summit "could determine whether SOAR can build enough public credibility to make change. An early criticism of SOAR was that its leadership was drawn almost exclusively from Eastern Kentucky's power elite. There was little or no representation from coal industry critics or grass-roots groups such as Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. The question hanging over SOAR is whether leaders who have done well in Eastern Kentucky's status quo can be expected to change it."

Southeastern Ky. 'Promise Zone' says it attracted $109 million in funding in first year

Administrators of the federal "Promise Zone" in eight Southeastern Kentucky counties say it has attracted more than $109 million in funding becaquse of the extra advantages created by the designation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The zone in Bell, Harlan, Letcher, Perry, Leslie, Clay and Knox counties and part of Whitley County is one of only five in the nation and the only one in a rural area. The zones get advantages in seeking assistance from federal agencies.

"Investments already are being made in areas such as education; medical facilities; college and career readiness; online information technology degree and certificate programs; workforce training; health and anti-drug initiatives; and housing and energy-efficiency projects," said a news release from London-based Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp., which manages the zone. The release cited:

• More than $44 million in grants for education projects that support a college-going culture and mental health initiatives.
• $23 million for hospital improvements to the Knox County Hospital, which not only will improve medical care but save more than 200 jobs.
• An announcement that Kowa Kentucky Inc. will open a facility in Corbin to manufacture surface treatment for automotive suppliers and create 30 jobs. It is the first North American plant for Kowa and the first Japanese company to locate in the Promise Zone.
• Co-investment from the state and federal governments in local companies such as Phillips Diversified, based in Manchester. KHIC completed two loans last year with Phillips, one loan in partnership with the state Economic Development Cabinet and the other with USDA to create about 40 jobs.

“With input and effort from the entire community, we are well on our way to creating and implementing a sustainable, measurable strategy for the future,” Kentucky Highlands CEO Jerry Rickett said. “Our growing number of strong partnerships is a reflection of the commitment and an indication of our likelihood of success.”

CDC will send senior staffer to Eastern Kentucky to fight region's chronic health problems

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will place a full-time employee in Eastern Kentucky to help public health departments battle the region's serious, chronic health problems, the area's congressman said Sept. 23.

Republican Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers of Somerset, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden, who spent three days with him in his Fifth Congressional District last month, told him he would assign a senior staffer to the job.

Beshear, Rogers (Melissa Newman photo)
Rogers made the announcement at a meeting of the executive committee of Shaping Our Appalachian Region, the economic-development effort he started with Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear. In a meeting at Natural Bridge State Resort Park, the panel heard reports from chairs of SOAR's working groups, which held "listening sessions" around the region this summer.

The Health Working Group "recommended pushing a statewide ban on smoking indoors in public; asking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study poor health in the region and the emerging research on a correlation between mountaintop mining and health problems," Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The working group's PowerPoint slide said, "Invite the CDC to form a task force to accurately map the current state of health in Eastern Kentucky and to create a strategic health plan for the region; start the 'Healthy 5 for the 5th' campaign for individual health in an effort to promote wellness in the region; explore Coordinated School Health programs for our entire region; ramp up oral-health efforts to encourage school-based oral health services are underway in every school district in the region."

SOAR working groups submit recommendations

After a summer of "listening sessions" around Appalachian Kentucky, the working groups of the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative made their recommendations to the organization's executive committee Sept. 23.

"Each group submitted a report with goals that could be reached in three separate time frames: within the next year, within one to three years, and within 10 years," said a news release from the offices of Gov. Steve Beshear at U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, who started the effort.

Following are the release's highlights of the shortest-term recommendations. All the recommendations are at

Agriculture/Community/Regional Foods
·       Support local food system development through local education efforts, a national tourism campaign called Bon Appétit Appalachia, and allowing WIC and senior vouchers to be used at local farm stands. 
·       Compile information about agriculture, food, and natural resource asset mapping efforts.
·       Create part-time position for agriculture liaison in SOAR administrative structure.
·       Create low-interest loans for small and beginning farmers in Appalachian region.
·       Consider tax incentives to lease reclaimed mine lands for agricultural purposes.
·       Fiber infrastructure should be an open access system to support government services, education, healthcare, and business development.
·       Fiber infrastructure deployment should be a priority project for the SOAR region, followed by other regions in the state. 
Business Recruitment
·       Identify regional growth zones that have emerged around growth communities within the region, based upon statistical metrics.
·       Identify emerging economic clusters throughout the region for focused development.
·       Identify existing companies that are growing, and focus programs of the Eastern Kentucky Technical Assistance Providers Network on this group, via the development of regional business service teams.
·       Develop and promote a web portal clearinghouse to better market resources currently available to potential entrepreneurs and existing small business owners.
·       Begin to craft a multi-faceted campaign to tell the story of innovative entrepreneurship within the region, especially to our youth.
Business Incubation
·       Begin formal studies with a consultant on several issues to include existing resources, properties inventory, workforce inventory and target industries analysis.
·       Create new relationships among new and existing regional economic development agencies and engines, and provide funding for collaboration.
·       Develop specific incentive programs for Eastern Kentucky.
·       Improve critical infrastructure, including transportation, high-speed Internet, and industrial park properties.
·       Establish permanent economic development funding tied to coal severance funds.
Education and Retraining
·       Establish an employment and training program focused on low-wage workers and unemployed individuals who qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
·       Develop an entrepreneurial training program at the community colleges that supports the region’s rich artisan culture and small business owners.
·       Work with partners in healthcare, energy, telecommunications, and digital technology to guide creation of short- and long-term training programs to establish direct paths to employment in those sectors.
·       Connect education to training for the workplace. Increase access to education through additional career counselors, uniform career portfolios, and partnerships with local businesses.
·       Ensure educational and regional leadership through promoting leadership academies and access to professional development.
·       Endorse and promote the passage of a state-wide smoke-free legislation.
·       Start a “Healthy 5 for the 5th” campaign to promote wellness in the region.
·       Explore Coordinated School Health programs for our entire region.
·       Ramp up oral health efforts to encourage school-based oral health services.
·       Complete a SOAR Transportation Planning Study for the region.
·       Require participation in a regional planning process as a condition for funding in order to identify the most important and cost efficient solutions or projects.
·       Promote utilization of MACED’s How$mart Program and other existing programs.
·       Reform the financing, permitting, and policing of water and sewer systems within the SOAR region to improve service.
·       Create a SOAR economic development organization.
Leadership Development and Youth Engagement
·       Create county coalitions focused on the empowerment of young Eastern Kentucky workers, which will support training and professional development and create regional networking and social opportunities.
·       Promote entrepreneurship, SOAR, and specific change strategies including angel investment and coding effort; engagement with schools; and early entrepreneurial education.
·       Create a SOAR student voucher program for area cultural events for low income children and a parent or guardian to attend one event or attraction each semester.
·       Create a positive awareness campaign for youth using area magazines, newspapers, radio, and television opportunities to help share positive eastern Kentucky stories.
·       Sponsor local college and career fairs through area high schools.
Regional Collaboration and Identity
·       Use Area Development Districts as supporting entities for development and administration of projects in ARC counties.
·       Establish platform to insure that communication continues among work groups, local governments, private business, and interested citizens.
·       Encourage existing economic development professionals and organizations to maximize their strength by collaborating on marketing and recruitment of relevant industry.
·       Utilize existing resources to create the framework for regional foundations that mirror regions as defined by area development districts.
Tourism, including Natural Resources, Arts and Heritage
·       Increase funding for aggressive advertising and media outreach, to include strategic marketing, public relations, and social media to effectively brand Kentucky and Appalachia and market the area nationally and internationally.
·       Promote heritage and the arts of the region (visual, performing, and literary) through more artisan centers; restoration of “dying” traditions in heritage and the arts; offering business training for artists; and supporting more heritage tourism.
·       Promote entrepreneurship through incubator support and mentoring programs.
·       Promote SOAR region through smartphone apps, online promotion and social media.
·       Chart existing festivals and cross-promote; provide festival training on how to maximize return on investment.
White House notes progress of Promise Zone, says 900 laid-off miners have found new jobs

The federal government's Southeastern Kentucky "Promise Zone" has been making progress, the White House said Sept. 19 in a news release announcing the next round of competition for Promise Zone creation: "The Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp. has held 16 listening sessions with residents across the area to identify 10 achievement goals for the Promise Zone region," including "building a sustainable regional economy; collaborating to increase communications; enhancing education opportunities; ensuring access to critical health services; increasing access to affordable and energy efficient housing; expanding access to transportation; revitalizing downtowns; increasing recreation, arts and community engagement and expanding the pool of community leaders."

The release said the Obama administration has invested more than $23 million through the Rural Development agency of the Department of Agriculture "to ensure access to critical health services by increasing hospital capacity, expanding health care services and creating continued economic opportunity for health care workers in the region," and the Labor Department has put more than $11 million into a program to held laid-off coal miners find jobs. The release said more than 2,000 former had enrolled in the program as of June, and "640 have received extended education services or on-the-job training, and 900 have found new employment."

Federal grant for Mountain Parkway is one of largest in latest round of special grants

The U.S. Department of Transportation is giving Kentucky a $24 million grant to expedite four-laning of the Mountain Parkway through Salyersville, the major bottleneck along the route that Gov. Steve Beshear wants to improve as part of the bipartisan effort to improve Eastern Kentucky's economy.

The Sept. 9 grant was the fourth largest in the latest round of TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grants, which totaled $584 million for 72 projects. The largest grants were $25 million each for a Maine-New Hampshire bridge and New York City street work to improve pedestrian and bicycle safety, and $24.9 million for a bus project in Richmond, Va.

The grant will allow the Salyersville work to be done two years earlier than scheduled. The project will extend the parkway to the junction of US 460 and KY 114, which is sometimes called the parkway extension to US 23 at Prestonsburg. The 2.4-mile segment has more than 80 entrances for businesses and other properties; the new road will have "controlled access points and back roads to maintain local access while improving a corridor for commercial and regional travel between Eastern and Central Kentucky," said a press release from Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, founders of teh Shaping Our Appalachian Region economic initiative.

"Kentucky will cover the additional $15 million needed to complete the Salyersville segment, which has an estimated cost of $39 million," the releasecsaid. "Right-of-way acquisition is scheduled to begin by year’s end and pre-construction work will begin next year. Construction is expected to be underway in the first half of 2016."

Appalachian Ky. has much of what it needs to improve its health, key federal officials say

By Al Cross
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

Appalachian Kentucky has the enthusiasm, creativity, people and facilities needed to greatly improve its dismal health status, two high-ranking federal officials said after looking at the problem on a recent tour.
Dr. Thomas Frieden, Rep. Hal Rogers

"I want to stir up our people to get involved in a grass-roots effort," U.S. Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers, R-Somerset, who hosted Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on a four-stop tour of his Fifth Congressional District in early August.

Rogers and Frieden were guests on KET's "One to One," in a program recorded right after they returned from their early-August trip, where Frieden said he saw much creativity and enthusiasm.

Using one of Rogers's favorite sayings, Frieden said, "If you plan your work and work your plan, you may very well have tremendous success."

Rogers said what struck him most about the trip was "the infrastructure we already have in place," including hospitals, health departments, doctors and other health providers, and he wants to "talk about enhancing them.

Rogers is in a position to do that with federal money, because he is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. He is also co-founder, with Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, of Shaping Our Appalachian Region, an initiative to improve the economy of Eastern Kentucky. Rogers pitched the tour as a SOAR event.

Asked by "One to One" moderator Bill Goodman where the role of government begins and personal responsibility for health begins, Frieden said, in an apparent reference to smoking bans, "You don't want to go to your job and get cancer as a result."

"We don't tell people what to do" at the CDC, he said, but offer communities choices from a list of proven programs. Earlier, he said smoke-free laws not only reduce smoking, but heart attacks among non-smokers.

Rogers said he asked Frieden what one thing he would recommend for improving personal health in the region, and the doctor replied, "Walk."

Frieden said walking is an especially good option for Kentuckians because they have such a beautiful state. However, many rural areas in the state lack sidewalks or other easily accessible places to walk.

"Physical activity is the closest thing we have to a wonder drug" for all sorts of ailments, Frieden said, "but you have to do something you love to do" in order to stick with it. He said it also helps children be good students: "The more physical activity they get, the better their minds will work."

That point was made a few days before the two men's trip, at the Kentucky Summit on Childhood Obesity and Physical Activity at the University of Kentucky.

Two questions from SOAR meetings: Is mining affecting health, and why have so few elected officials attended working-group sessions?

By Coriá Bowen
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

HAZARD, Ky. – Does surface mining harm the health of people in the East Kentucky Coal Field? And why haven’t more elected officials participated in this summer’s meetings to gather ideas to diversify and improve the economy of Appalachian Kentucky?

Those were the two biggest questions raised Friday as 18 leaders of the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative gathered in Hazard for a meeting of chairs of the SOAR working groups that have been holding “listening sessions” all over the region.

While many if not most working groups are still compiling their lists of recommendations, Dr. Nikki Stone, chair of the health working group, finalized her group’s list with a tie for number one: coordinated school health and environmental health.

The topic of environmental health, particularly health effects from mountaintop removal and other large-scale surface mining, was a top concern of listening session participants, Stone said in an interview.

“The main thing is that people are very curious about what the truth is,” said Stone, a pediatric dentist in Hazard. “There’s apparently a growing body of research papers on the effects . . . Everybody is curious how big of an impact that specifically is having on people’s health,” including birth defects and cancer rates.

Stone noted the research and reported her working group’s top priorities during a SOAR-related meeting in early August. The event was part of a tour by Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
, arranged by U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, who co-founded SOAR with Gov. Steve Beshear.

A study published in the Journal of Environmental Research compared mountaintop-mining areas of Central Appalachia to non-mining areas and found a correlation of mining with birth defects.

Several studies have found other such correlations, but Stone said she and her working group want to know if there is causation – if mining in fact does affect public health.

“I hope to see that we’ll get a definitive answer on the effects,” Stone said. “And maybe we’ll find a way to impact it.”

At the Aug. 5 meeting, Frieden told Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader that definitive conclusions are often difficult in such studies, but “If invited in, we could certainly look at it.” Rogers told Estep, “We need to know if there’s anything to it, certainly.”

Some of the Health Working Group’s other priorities, after coordinated school health and environmental health, are smoke-free initiatives, substance abuse and community wellness initiatives.

The eight working groups dealing with policy issues need to prioritize a total of 10 to 15 ideas for a “multi-year effort,” said Chuck Fluharty, president and CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute, which is staffing SOAR until it can find a permanent executive director. During the middle of the meeting, there was a discussion of what Fluharty called the “elephant in the room”– the relative lack of elected officials at most of the listening sessions.

Several working-group chairs said their plans will require policy changes, and elected officials must be a part of the process in order for the changes to take place. Others cautioned that elected officials may not be so important.

“Leadership comes at a whole bunch of different levels and it seems from our region from time to time we expect too much from our elected officials,” said Jeff Whitehead, executive director of the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program in Hazard. “I get a sense people are sitting around waiting for one person to make all the change.”

Phil Osborne, a Lexington consultant and chair of the Tourism Working Group, said, “We don’t put too much emphasis on elected officials to get us out of our mess,” suggesting that some officials contribute to the “mess.”

Fluharty expressed the overall importance of having more resources behind communications, to elected officials and people of the region, as SOAR moves forward.

At the same time, Fluharty charged the chairs to ensure that their reporting gives voice to the people of the region and not to their own opinions or those of Rogers and Beshear.
“We would not have paddled up this stream without the leadership who have gotten us there,” Fluharty said. “We have to protect them to sustain the paddle.”

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is providing independent coverage of SOAR activities with funding from the Rural Policy Research Institute, which is providing SOAR staff support. For more information:

Group seeks regional collaboration and identity to help Eastern Kentucky

By Coriá Bowen
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

SLADE, Ky. – The political leaders who organized the bipartisan Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative have long stressed that one key to success will be creation of a more cohesive regional identity, with more collaboration across county lines.

That has been the focus of SOAR's Regional Collaboration and Identity Working Group, which had its final meeting last week at Natural Bridge Resort Park. The meeting drew 21 people, who sat at a round table discussing the assets and challenges of their counties and a few solid ideas to enhance the collaboration and sense of regional identity in Eastern Kentucky.

As they introduced themselves, some participants endorsed the idea of blurring county lines, combining areas that share similar goals and interests and want to work together.

“Everyone identifies themselves by a county. … There is a lot of territorialism, I've found out,” said Ohio native Nancy Hamann, owner of Scenic Cabin Rentals and Daniel Boone Trading Post in Lee, Powell and Wolfe counties. “Lots of people want to be here … You need to go out and capitalize on that.”

Peter Hille, executive vice president of the Berea-based Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, said he also had “an outsider's perspective,” but of a different kind.

“When we talk about identity, we usually hear of people from the outside talking bad about people from Eastern Kentucky,” Hiller said. “Some of the worst things I’ve heard said about East Kentuckians is from the middle-class East Kentuckians. … We have an internal identity problem.”

Hamann said some people think SOAR will fail, as other attempts to improve the region have, but Gerry Roll of Hazard, executive director of the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, told the group, “Never mind 'We've tried it before.' "Let’s try it again, together.”

Participants offered several ideas, such as capitalizing on the arts, tax reform, increasing entrepreneurial education, marketing for small-business job opportunities, reallocation of coal severance-tax funds, getting tourism initiatives recognized as economic development, improving the region's overall health.

The region and the state need laws banning smoking in workplaces and enclosed public spaces to reduce the number of people who smoke, said Clark County Health Director Scott Lockard, a Wolfe County resident. “We can appreciate the history of tobacco while at the same time acknowledging it’s the number one killer in the state.”

Though this was the working group's last meeting, “Regional collaboration is an ongoing process,” said Sandy Runyon, the working group chair, who reports to the SOAR executive committee. “This topic will continue as the SOAR initiative continues and will be really important as we move on down the road.”

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is providing independent coverage of SOAR activities with funding from the Rural Policy Research Institute, which is providing SOAR staff support. For more information:

Appalachian Kentucky must cooperate to capitalize on tourism, experts say

By Coriá Bowen
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

PIKEVILLE, Ky. – Can Eastern Kentucky capitalize on its distinct culture to attract more tourists and diversify its economy? Yes, if people work together across county lines, experts agreed at the “Capitalizing on Culture” conference in Pikeville Aug. 1-2.

“In order for us to have that synergy of tourism that’s satisfying to tourism and people, we have to partner,” Niki Nicholas, superintendent of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in McCreary County, said in an interview on the first day of conference, which attracted about 110 people to the East Kentucky Exposition Center.

Jim Mallory, vice chairman of the Lewis and Clark Trust, which wants to expand the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, said during a first-day panel discussion that people have to communicate for an area’s tourism to boom. “I think tourism is national or international,” he said. “You need to trade, you need to share info across counties and regions.”

When it comes to marketing tourism, identity is an important issue, said Don Wollenhaupt, chief of interpretation and education for the National Park Service in the Southeast, said in the conference’s keynote address. “We have identity issues sometimes,” he said. “Many people did not know the Statue of Liberty is a part of the national park system.”

Wallenhaupt said the Park Service tries to increase visitors’ understanding and appreciation of the significance of a park’s resources, and the histories of land and people are part of that education, so it’s important for people in nearby communities to be connected with parks and recreational areas. He suggested organizations talk to park managers and staff to discuss innovative ways to collaborate.

Cooperating across county lines is important because seemingly small, disconnected elements of history and culture can be combined for a rich experience for visitors, said Wayna Adams, archaeologist and heritage program manager for the Daniel Boone National Forest. “Sometimes they miss amazing opportunities to have a string-of-pearls of experience,” Adams said during a panel discussion, adding that the goal should be for people to have “an amazing experience itinerary.”

Tressa Brown, who coordinates Native and African American heritage for the Kentucky Heritage Council, said during the panel, “We can’t ignore our deep history here; it impacts all of us.” She added, “I often get calls from people wanting to tap into their family heritage. Heritage tourism with regards to genealogy and family history is huge.”

Overall, the panelists described practical marketing strategies for communities such as starting with investing in a new roof on a historic building, building strong volunteer teams and telling stories.

The second panel discussion, “Nonprofit Preservation Advocacy,” was aimed at providing ideas and resources for establishing a non-profit advocacy group. “Non-profit advocacy engages in community problems,” said Betsy Hatfield, executive director of Preservation Kentucky. “It does not have to be confrontation to get things done and it’s also a great way to form alliances and collaborations.”

Hatfield asked the audience how her organization could help their individual nonprofits. One idea was a better partnership between the University of Pikeville and other organizations through internships, for example; another was to help nonprofits find ways to work together for collective marketing, not just individual marketing.

Judi Patton of Pikeville, first lady of Kentucky from 1995 to 2003, shared her perception of Eastern Kentucky. “We’re all proud of our communities,” Patton said. “Yes, we have lost our brightest and our best because of lack of opportunities. Our children want to stay here, they love this land, they love the people, and we will have opportunity to grow.” Patton said the region has come a long way and that with the help of organizations like Preservation Kentucky, the area will have a lot to offer.

The conference was sponsored by the heritage council and its State Historic Preservation Office, the Shaping our Appalachian Region initiative and Community Trust Bancorp Inc. A video broadcast of a portion of day two of the conference will be available at

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is providing independent coverage of SOAR activities with funding from the Rural Policy Research Institute, which is providing SOAR staff support. For more information:
Students need better counseling to contribute more to the region, working group thinks

By Coriá Bowen
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

MOREHEAD, Ky. – A group studying how education can lift the economy of Appalachian Kentucky has several ideas, including a “counseling for careers” approach that would begin for students no later than middle school and continue through high school.

The program would be modeled after the Kentucky College Coach program that places mentors in high schools for individual support and college coaching, according to discussions in the Education and Retraining Working Group of the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative.

During the group’s fifth meeting, last Thursday at Morehead State University, Stephen Lange, associate dean of MSU’s School of Public Affairs, said “one-on-one support” has been lacking at high schools in the area. Counselors “do a good job of general coaching and testing and things like that,” Lange said, “but when bringing in a student and looking at careers, it doesn’t happen.”

Thursday’s listening session focused on discussing core recommendations gathered from a survey created and launched by the group members.

The 40 people present were invited to rate their top five recommendations from a list of 18 recommendations – gathered from the survey that can be accessed on the SOAR website (

Nine posters hung around the meeting room with two recommendations on each one as people stuck five colored tabs underneath the recommendations in their personal order of importance.

“I’m anxious to step back and look at all the results from the surveys,” Jeff Whitehead, the chair of the group said in an interview, “I think we’ll see some common themes across the region.”

This method of rating recommendations has been used at each of the education and retraining listening sessions, and consistently one of the “most important” recommendations is the “counseling for careers” approach.

Other ideas brought up during Thursday’s meeting included: Funding should be made available for student internships for authentic workplace and job site experience; and more emphasis should be placed on math and science education, because skills from both disciplines are transferable in several different industries and both subjects are benchmarks of intellectual rigor.

“When they (students) graduate from high school, they should be ready to take college classes,” said Joe Odicta, an Army veteran and local soup-kitchen volunteer. “They should be ready to go in and take real math classes instead of remedial classes. That depends on the high school to get them ready for that.”

Each of SOAR’s 10 working groups will make a report to the SOAR Executive Committee, which will sport through the ideas and draft a plan for implementing them.

Each Education and Retraining Working Group listening session is conducted by several members of the group. For future meeting times, locations and other group announcements, visit: or the SOAR Facebook page:

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is providing independent coverage of SOAR activities with funding from the Rural Policy Research Institute, which is providing SOAR staff support. For more information:

To change Appalachia’s health, change the culture, starting with youth, SOAR working group hears; CDC chief to visit

By Coriá Bowen
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

HAZARD, Ky. – The relatively poor health of Appalachian Kentucky is one of the major obstacles to its development, and changing that requires changing the culture, starting with youth. So said several people Wednesday, July 16, in Hazard, at a “listening session” of the Health Working Group of the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative, an effort to improve the region’s economy and quality of life.

“We have to change the children’s mindset first,” said Pam Cornett, a UK dental program outreach manager. “When you’re doing incentives for healthy eating, I think you should put your biggest concentration on children.”

Mary Beth Lacy, outreach coordinator for Coventry Cares of Kentucky, a Medicaid managed-care company, said children learn by watching and are taught through community. “Rediscovering our community and then teaching our kids … we learned by watching,” she said. “It’s free to invite someone to your house. Let’s open our homes again.”

Dr. Nikki Stone, chair of the working group, began the meeting with a presentation to an audience of about 20. She included chilling Kentucky health statistics and rankings at the state, regional and county levels. “Whether it’s poverty, whether it’s environmental, we don’t know,” said Stone, a University of Kentucky dentist based in Hazard. She also mentioned ways that have been proven to improve health and extend life, including eating healthy and using seat belts.

The health working group is one of 10 that are holding sessions around Appalachian Kentucky this summer to get ideas. Health care is the number one “economic engine” in the region, Stone said, but the role of the working group is to suggest plans for improving overall health outcomes in the region.

At each of the listening sessions, Stone designates a “crazy time” for audience members to share their most “crazy” and innovative ideas. One idea offered during “crazy” time was to vegetable drive-thru restaurants. Other ideas ranged from sending food trucks into hollows and other areas where healthy food is not easily accessed, to a tax on sugar and implementing sex education well before middle school.

Mae Humiston, an Appalachian transition fellow of the Community Farm Alliance, suggested more education for agriculture careers, such as “finding land, loans and training.”

The meeting ended with a discussion on the importance of spreading good news of the image of the region. Stone encouraged the group to create a Facebook page, illustrating their goals and ideas as well as posing healthy living challenges for people to participate in – such as hosting a canning party.

The Health Working Group’s next meeting is scheduled for 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday, July 24 in the UK Center for Health, Education and Research at 316 W. Second St., Morehead.

CDC head to make first Kentucky visit: SOAR will hold a “Health Impact Series” in early August featuring Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, marking the first time a CDC director of the CDC has visited Eastern Kentucky.

Meetings are scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Aug. 4 at the Center for Rural Development in Somerset; 10 a.m. Aug. 5 at the Hazard Community and Technical College; 5:30 p.m. Aug. 5 the Ramada Paintsville Hotel; and 10 a.m. Aug. 6 at the Morehead Conference Center. Space is limited for the Health Impact Series, but individuals can reserve a seat by contacting Cheryl Keaton at 606-657-3218 or at

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is providing independent coverage of SOAR activities with funding from the Rural Policy Research Institute, which is providing SOAR staff support. For more information:

Group starts ‘listening sessions’ to get ideas for tourism related to arts and heritage in Appalachian Kentucky

By Coriá Bowen
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

ASHLAND, Ky. The largest working group of the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative has begun a series of “listening sessions” to get ideas about developing tourism opportunities from Appalachian Kentucky’s arts and heritage.

 “Our charge tonight is to pick your brains on what are some big opportunities,” Phil Osborne, chair of the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Working Group, said at its first meeting, Tuesday at Ashland’s Paramount Arts Center. “How do we pull everybody together with common denominators to create something that’s lasting?”

The working group, which has 52 members and is looking for more, is one of 10 aiming to improve the overall economy and quality of life for Kentucky’s Appalachian counties.

To make downtowns more attractive to funders and investors, historic buildings should be enhanced, said Bruce Marquis, executive director of the Paramount Arts Center, a restored theater.

“The historic detail still rests under these buildings,” Marquis said. “That encourages more development in a town that encourages tourism. When you restore enough buildings, you qualify as a historic district that invites more funding.” Marquis mentioned façade grants that could be used for building restorations.

With the meeting site just less than three blocks from the Ohio River, the use of waterfronts as tourist sites was also discussed. “Anytime you have a waterfront, you have an asset,” said Catrina Vargo, a reporter for The Levisa Lazer, an online newspaper based in Louisa. “Play upon the mountains, art and crafts. We’re totally different than other parts of the state that aren’t that far from us.”

Also during the listening session, participants shared and encouraged each other as they discussed ways to find economic support for their ideas.

“Find something in what you’re providing that benefits that person,” said Mandilyn Hart, executive director of the Center for Appalachian Philanthropy, based in Portsmouth, Ohio, and Vanceburg. “Finding common ground is the only way to be able to have someone give.”

Other ideas included a performing arts trail, a “blue way” tourism system for kayakers, and overall ways to diversity existing infrastructure and the economy –“connecting the dots,” as Hart put it. “We don’t need brand-new everything,” she said. “We just need to elevate existing things.”

The seven people at the meeting also talked about the importance of looking at other counties’ successes during the process of reshaping the region and using that as a blueprint for their own.

The Tourism, Arts and Heritage Working Group held its second meeting in Morehead Thursday night. Osborne, a Lexington marketing executive and native of Carter County, said participants suggested new ways to promote the arts and reiterated the idea of more use of the region’s waterways.

The group will next meet from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 22, in the Perkins Building at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond.  The tentative schedule for other listening sessions is July 24 in Jackson, July 29 in Columbia, July 31 in London, Aug. 5 in Pineville and Aug. 7 in Hindman.  Four “big ideas brainstorming sessions” are tentatively scheduled Aug. 12 in Pikeville, Aug. 14 at Jamestown, Aug. 19 at Slade and Aug. 21 at Grayson. For more on the working group, go to

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is providing independent coverage of SOAR activities with funding from the Rural Policy Research Institute, which is providing SOAR staff support. For more information:

Beshear, Rogers announce next steps for high-speed broadband
Press release, July 11, 2014
Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers announced today that two requests for proposals (RFPs) are being issued this month on a public-private partnership (P3) project to build critically-needed high-speed broadband Internet access to the farthest reaches of the state. Increasing broadband access in Eastern Kentucky is a primary focus of the project.

An RFP was released today by the Commonwealth of Kentucky in conjunction with the Center for Rural Development seeking private partners to build, operate and maintain a statewide open-access, high-speed broadband network. A complementary RFP seeking equity partners for the project will be released next week. The Commonwealth may establish one contract using either the equity or concessionaire model. (See story below.)
Red: Center for Rural Development network; blue: Next Generation Kentucky Information Highway; yellow: route planned to be shared
The Next Generation Kentucky Information Highway will help Kentucky make tremendous strides toward being a leader both in terms of speed and presence of high-speed Internet connectivity, Gov. Beshear said.

“Infrastructure such as roads, sewers, water lines and classrooms are critical to our quality of life and economic vitality,” Gov. Beshear said. “Today, we also have to invest in another kind of infrastructure – the kind that will break down geographic and financial barriers to education and economic development.”

Rogers said, “This ‘Super I-Way’ will pave a high-tech future for Eastern Kentucky. It will launch our rural region into the global playing field, creating new job opportunities, innovative access to healthcare, enhanced educational opportunities, and much more. We are eager to move forward with this project to help grow Eastern Kentucky’s economy.”

The initial phase of the project is expected to take two years to build and will include more than 3,000 miles of fiber infrastructure, often referred to as the “middle mile.”

Currently, Kentucky ranks 46th in high-speed broadband Internet availability. Nearly a quarter of the state’s population – 23 percent – has no access to broadband. “Today, only about half of Kentucky’s households use broadband Internet service, and nearly one-quarter can’t access broadband at all,” Beshear said. “We’re going to fix that with an ambitious plan to extend broadband access, initially focusing on Eastern Kentucky.”

The push for reliable, accessible high-speed broadband is one recommendation that emerged from SOAR, the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative that seeks to move Kentucky’s Appalachian region forward. “Much like previous generations’ efforts to build sewer and water systems, the electric grid and paved highways, this broadband initiative will solidify Kentucky’s place in the new global economy,” Rogers said. “Our investment in it will pay dividends in the years ahead.”

Idea of expanding broadband raises questions for carriers and customers
By Coriá Bowen
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

SOMERSET, Ky. – The goal to provide optic fiber broadband and internet services to every Appalachian Kentucky community was the overarching theme last month in Somerset at one of the “listening sessions” being held by Shaping Our Appalachian Region – an effort to improve the Appalachian Kentucky’s economy and quality of life.

Other issues discussed at the meeting included how SOAR’s current plans for “middle-mile” connections to the Internet will affect “last-mile” carriers, such as AT&T and Windstream, that directly serve consumers; the need to educate the region about the opportunities broadband can bring; and the building and financing of fiber-optic routes from Cincinnati to Tennessee. 

The broadband working group is one of 10 SOAR groups aiming to improve specific aspects of the Kentucky Appalachian economy, including agriculture, tourism and business incubation.

Lonnie Lawson, the broadband working group chair, presented a map of three fiber-optic routes that would be built in the region. As of now, the state will be responsible for the western route (blue on the map in story above) and the Center for Rural Development will be responsible for the eastern route (red on the map). The final decision on the yellow route is still to be determined, but it is projected to have shared responsibility by both the state and the center, which is based in Somerset.

Lawson emphasized that redundancy, or the overlapping of routes in certain areas, is crucial so that if one fiber route has a problem, the areas it serves have alternate sources of broadband. “We’re trying to build where you don’t know the difference between state and SOAR broadband,” he said.

The meeting began with a brief presentation by engineers for Kimley-Horn and Associates of Raleigh. They presented their methods and lessons learned in a similar broadband project model in North Carolina. “We installed 1,500 miles of fiber in 18 months,” Ben Burchett said. ”The biggest lesson learned was the amount of communication we had to have with different agencies.”

This lesson in communications is one that network carriers would like to learn before the completion of the SOAR broadband plan. How carriers will be affected was a reoccurring topic during the meeting.

“In my mind I’m thinking, is this a good thing that’s going to help us, or a bad thing that‘s going to take business away from us?” asked Keith Gabbard, general manager and CEO of The People’s Network, part of the Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative of McKee and Booneville.

Broadband consultant Hilda Gay Legg of Burnside, former director of the federal Rural Utilities Service, said in an interview after the meeting that the challenge for SOAR is “how to put in the infrastructure that was not feasible to anyone else.”

She said small telephone companies that have built fiber-optic systems worry that a publicly financed system with larger “pipes” that can carry more and faster traffic will subject them to damaging competition from larger companies.

Legg said the question is “How do we make it work, in fairness to those who’ve invested the money, and yet get to that last mile in a way that those who take it there get a return on their investment?”

Legg said that while telephone companies support the SOAR broadband initiative, they are worried about what it will specifically mean for their business. “Carriers don’t know what this will look like for them,” she said.

Lawson assured the group that the goal of this project is to work together with such entities, not compete with them. “The last thing we want to do is put people out of business,” he said.

Those at the meeting also discussed importance of marketing and educating communities about the value of broadband.

Legg said it’s important to keep in mind that this project should affect everything from large clinics to home health care because it means “greater speed, bigger pipes and more opportunity.” She encouraged the group to think beyond the middle-mile planning and remember the end goal of the project.

The working group’s charge is “to address the opportunities for deploying improved and expanded broadband and Internet services, so-called ‘middle-mile’ core fiber optic cable, and public ‘last-mile’ networks to provide Eastern Kentucky homes, businesses, schools, hospitals, and governments world-class access for a globally competitive future.” For more information on the working group, see

Look forward, not backward, federal official urges leaders of Appalachian economic effort

By Coriá Bowen
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

PINEVILLE, Ky. – Those who would reshape the economy of Appalachian Kentucky shouldn’t be held back by the past, a key federal official told leaders of the effort this week.

“Don’t be afraid to reinvent the identity of this region,” Jay Williams, assistant secretary of commerce for economic development, told the executive committee and working-group chairs of the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative in their meeting Monday at Pine Mountain State Resort Park.

Williams’ agency, the U.S. Economic Development Administration, is investing $312,000 in technical assistance to help SOAR create jobs and grow private-sector industries.

Also during the meeting, Wendy Spencer, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, announced a $1 million investment to support 52 full-time AmeriCorps VISTA members to help SOAR.

David Bellinier, a VISTA from Berea College Partners for Education, said in an interview, “I feel very honored to be a part of the fight against poverty especially in this region. I think it’s an incredibly resilient place and it’s filled with some of the most dynamic and energetic people that I’ve ever seen.  It seems like things are about to happen, it’s about to explode.”

Especially if it looks forward, not backward, Williams suggested. He shared in detail some steps in a journey he called “astonishingly” similar, one that he pioneered as mayor of Youngstown, Ohio, to help it recover from the collapse in its steel industry.

“We remembered the good old days to the point that when the collapse happened we couldn’t get past the bad days,” Williams said. When it comes to “things that go on here with respect to the coal economy,” he said, people should be “understanding it, embracing it, letting it always be a part of who you are, but not letting it hold you to the point that you can’t do the things that are necessary to move the next generation.”

Gov. Steve Beshear thanked Williams for his speech and financial contribution and said, “What a fascinating irony it is that we’ve found the person in the federal government that has gone through this process.”

John McCauley, Kentucky executive director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, gave new details of the USDA strike force initiative – one that serves 78 Kentucky counties that have been hit harder by unemployment and poverty over the last 30 years. 

“By virtue of the fact I come from these hills, it’s been a priority of mine to target Southeastern and Eastern Kentucky first in this initiative,” said McCauley, a native of Pineville.

McCauley said a “farm start program” is creating a video for new and small farmers that will include five to seven farming project ideas with potential income and estimated expenses. The video will be available for use in the entire Appalachian region.

In official business at the meeting, Chuck Fluharty, president and CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute, was confirmed to serve as interim executive director of SOAR while it looks for a permanent director. That search is headed by Lexington businessman Jim Host.

Other business included reports from working group chairs about their progress so far and core ideas they have developed. At the close of the meeting, U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers said, “Let’s just keep on charging.”

Hope for better cattle industry dominates first agriculture, food and natural resources ‘listening session’ of Appalachian initiative

By Al Cross
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky
     MOREHEAD, Ky. – Taking Eastern Kentucky’s cattle industry to a new level was the idea most discussed Thursday evening, June 12, at one of the first “listening sessions” of Shaping Our Appalachian Region, the effort to diversify and improve the economy of Appalachian Kentucky.
     Other ideas included raising sheep and goats, promoting agri-tourism, and expanding oak and sorghum harvesting to take advantage of the growing whiskey industry.
     The listening session was held by the SOAR working group on Agriculture, Community & Regional Foods and Natural Resources, one of 10 groups working on issues and topics this summer to help draft an economic plan for the region.
     The conversation at the Morehead State University Farm was dominated by agriculture. Forests, often identified as Appalachian Kentucky’s most neglected resource but are the base of a significant industry in the area, were mentioned only twice – when one participant said the region needs more industries for its hardwood timber, and another said lack of proper forest management understanding was a challenge for the region.
Daniel Wilson led the discussion at the Morehead State farm.
     Daniel Wilson, Wolfe County’s extension agent for agriculture and natural resources, led the gathering of about 40 people through discussions of the region’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges.
     George Hieneman, the Kentucky Farm Bureau Federation’s program manager for northeastern Kentucky, said one strength is the region’s transition from tobacco, which lost federal price supports and quotas almost 10 years ago, and acceptance of agricultural diversification.
     “If you show us a market, we will grow it,” Hieneman said, adding later that Eastern Kentucky farmers have shown an ability to make money on a wide range of landscapes.
     One of those includes grazing cattle on reclaimed strip mines, said Dr. Philip Prater, a veterinary professor at Morehead State. He and others said a heifer development program using reclaimed mines has improved the region’s cattle industry, which should be boosted by the recent opening of the region’s largest slaughterhouse, the Chop Shop at Lee City in Wolfe County.
     Most Kentucky cattle are raised on pasture, then sold and shipped to large feedlots in the Midwest. Several people at the meeting endorsed the idea of a covered feedlot where cattle could be fed grain to fatten them for slaughter. “I believe there’s a tremendous opportunity here for a finished beef product,” said working-group member Charles Miller.
     Alice Melendez, executive director of Winchester-based Plowshares for Patriots, said there needs to be more education about the beneficial health effects of eating beef that is entirely grass-fed.
     Prater said grass-fed beef is tougher, and research is needed to see which breeds or genetic lines of cattle finish better on grass. “If we can make that steer on grass get a little juicier,” he said, “that’s a good deal.”
     But the region’s water quality, which could be critical to a feedlot, is one of the region’s weaknesses, one participant said.
     Other participants cited lack of communication, coordination and cooperation among the region’s counties – a bugaboo that has often been mentioned by 5th District Rep. Hal Rogers, who started SOAR with Gov. Steve Beshear.
     Other weaknesses mentioned included lack of access to land because of absentee ownership and other reasons; reduction of agriculture programs in the region’s schools; and wildlife interference with agriculture.
     The latter example illustrates a potential conflict between agriculture and tourism based on hunting and wildlife watching. Such conflicts will be addressed by the SOAR executive committee when it receives reports from the working groups to draft a regional economic plan this fall.
     The next listening sessions of the Agriculture, Community & Regional Foods and Natural Resources working group will be held Thursday, June 19. One will be held at 7 p.m. in Louisa, at 249 Industrial Park Rd., for Greenup, Boyd, Lawrence, Johnson and Martin counties. The other will be held in Whitesburg at 6 p.m., at 478 Extension Dr., for Letcher, Perry, Knott, Leslie, Harlan and Breathitt counties. Each working group has a page on the SOAR website,
     Organizers say the public is encouraged to attend and participate in any and all listening sessions.             
Al Cross is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. SOAR supports the institute’s independent journalism about the initiative.

Bipartisan effort to reshape Appalachian Kentucky's economy seeks grass-roots input

By Al Cross
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

Do you have an idea for helping improve and diversify the economy of Appalachian Kentucky? Get ready to speak up.

The work groups of the Shaping our Appalachian Region effort plan to hold meetings in most parts of Eastern and Southern Kentucky this summer, to gather ideas for a strategic plan that will be written by the SOAR executive committee this fall.

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.

"I've never seen so much progress or bipartisan commitment from the political establishment," said Charles W. Fluharty, president of the Rural Policy Research Institute, who is acting as temporary staff leader for SOAR. "The challenge is to translate that to the grass roots."

One idea frequently heard during the two-day meeting at the Center for Rural Development was a need to overcome the divisions created by county lines.

"The only way we're going to get anything done is to come together as a region and do it," Mike Miller, executive director of the Kentucky River Area Development District and a former mayor of Jackson, told the Regional Collaboration and Identity work group, one of 10.

Lake Cumberland Area Development District Executive Director Donna Diaz generally agreed, and said those involved in the effort shouldn't use lack of government funding as an excuse for lack of action. "Building self-sufficiency is an important part of this," she said.

Tourism prospects got much discussion at the meeting, but progress could come from many small successes, not big projects, said Peter Hille of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, who heads the East Kentucky Leadership Foundation, sponsor of the conference.

Hille said a small restaurant, Miguel's, near Natural Bridge State Resort Park "is more famous worldwide than any of our state parks" because of its proximity to the Red River Gorge, which attracts hikers, rock climbers and outdoor enthusiasts from all over the globe. He said entrepreneurs can find opportunities in "things to do, places to stay and reasons to come back."

Ideas may be easy to conceive, but executing them is often hard. "Agriculture often gets overlooked as economic development," said Mark Reece, a former agriculture and natural resources agent. But he cautioned, "Growing it is just not enough. . . . if you don't handle it the way the market wants it to be handled, you get nothing."

The region's most widely distributed commercial resource is timber, but is not professionally managed by most private landowners. SOAR needs to look for ways to encourage them to do that, said David Ditsch of the University of Kentucky's Robinson Center for Appalachian Resource Sustainability. He added that there is also much potential in raising goats, sheep and even cattle on surface-mined land that has been reclaimed in grasses.

SOAR was launched in response to a steep decline in the region's coal industry, but Ron Crouch, a demographer with the state Workforce Development Cabinet, said in the conference's first presentation that the economy of the Eastern Kentucky Coalfield has been diversifying for many years, t 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.

SOAR is a bipartisan effort led by Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican 5th District U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Somerset. Some at the conference noted that a two-term governor from Pikeville, Democrat Paul Patton, created a Kentucky Appalachian Commission, only to see it abolished by his successor, Republican Ernie Fletcher.

Another governor will be elected in 2015. To protect the coming strategic plan from political change, "We've got to have structural changes that are institutionalized," said Hindman lawyer and businessman Bill Weinberg, who headed the foundation for eight years.

Beshear told the conference that he has tried to make clear that SOAR "will not be directed by Frankfort or Washington," but he said it "needs to overcome the skepticism that greets any government-generated idea," and that will come from "your insight, your ideas and your energy."

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