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SOAR: Shaping Our Applachian Region

SOAR Summit 2015 Notes

Watch video segments from the 2015 SOAR summit

Blog Notes from the Soar Summit

5:15 p.m.: The SOAR summit concludes. Tune in KET tonight at 11 for a rebroadcast of the opening conversation with Gov. Beshear, Congressman Rogers, and SOAR Executive Director Jared Arnett.

5:02 p.m.: Congressman Hal Rogers comes to the podium to close the summit. He says the solution to the region’s problems must come from the grassroots, the people of eastern Kentucky. We’ve had an impressive day of strategizing the next phase of SOAR, Rogers says. SOAR is about action, he continues: creating jobs, investing in new opportunities, and expanding broadband. And we’re seeing success, according to Rogers.

Gov. Steve Beshear says it’s been a long but impressive day. He adds that the challenge will be to sustain the SOAR effort. He credits the engagement of thousands of people who have offered their suggestions for bettering the region. He says everyone needs to recommit everyday to this effort from here on out because that’s the only way it can be successful. Beshear says SOAR isn’t a bureaucracy or a government outreach effort. It’s the people of eastern Kentucky and the journey they’re on to create action and progress. Finally the governor reports that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jack Conway has committed to continue SOAR if he’s elected governor. Besehar says Rep. Rogers plans to secure a similar commitment from the GOP gubernatorial nominee.

4:30 p.m.: Now SOAR Executive Director Jared Arnett discusses who is SOAR. It’s an opportunity to hear from organizations committed to helping the SOAR efforts. Wendy Spencer, CEO, Corporation for National and Community Service, notes the contributions that AmeriCorps volunteers have made to the region, including training, tutoring and grant writing activities. She announces a new $1.2 million commitment for 56 AmeriCorps – VISTA members who will receive college scholarships after fulfilling their volunteer commitment.

Among the other commitments are: Joe Depriest, Letcher County Economic Development Director, commits to a new economic development team. He says it’s part of the big-picture solution for eastern Kentucky. Says families who want to live in the region or move back here should have the opportunity to have good paying jobs.

Douglas Jones from Hazard who owns chain of equipment rental businesses commits to cooperation. He says that can help foster agribusiness development in the region, more tourism, and expansion of broadband service.

Becky Naugle of the Kentucky Small Business Development Center commits to creating a database to help entrepreneurs in the region. She says they will also provide free services to help local businesses grow.

Jeff Whitehead of the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program commits to aligning their work to the economic priorities of the region. He says they will prepare people for the digital economy.

Jonathan Gay of the Kentucky Innovation Network at Morehead State University commits to helping entrepreneurs, especially in three cutting-edge industries: information technology, agri-tourism, and aerospace.

4:10 p.m.: Jay Williams, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development at the Economic Development Administration takes the stage to tell the story of his hometown: Youngstown, Ohio, A Story of Growth Through Change. Williams is a former mayor of Youngstown, and led that city through a period of revitalization.

Williams says Youngstown and eastern Kentucky have much in common. His region was heavily dependent on a single industry: steel production. He says it defined Youngstown for decades, much like coal has defined eastern Kentucky for years.

In the early 1970s, Youngstown was humming along, with significant growth expected. Only a few years later, the bottom fell out and the last of the steel mills closed in 1977. Youngstown was defined by that failure by more than 25 years, Williams says.

In 2002, the community launched a project called Youngstown 2010. People realized they couldn’t wait for government to solve their problems, Williams. Some 1,200 people came together to have frank conversations about the future of Youngtown. They created a vision and a plan of action to show the world they were serious about changing the community. Williams says they had to accept we were a smaller city. That we had a new role in the regional and global economy. That we would interact with surrounding communities differently. That we had to revitalize the quality of life in Youngstown. And that we had to have a plan of action.

We had to figure out how to capitalize on the things that made Youngstown unique, Williams says. And eastern Kentucky needs to do that, too, and then you have to introduce those things to the world, according to Williams.

Just like in Youngstown, Williams says the SOAR collaboration has to outlive current elected officials. You have to hold those who will follow them to the same level of accountability, Williams argues.

Williams says when we told our story, amazing things began to happen. The media wanted to understand how Youngstown redefined itself. We found ourselves as a place where people wanted to do business. And the same can be true for eastern Kentucky, Williams says. He cautions that people are tilling fertile ground that may not produce results for years to come.

There are lessons to be learned and best practices to be shared, Williams continues. The fact that you have a Democrat governor and Republican Congressman standing up and saying something needs to be done is the kind of bipartisanship that can be replicated across the country.

2:58 p.m.: Now on to the legislative leadership panel featuring officials from the Kentucky House and Senate.

On creating new economic opportunities for the region, Rep. Rocky Adkins begins by noting the thousands of coal jobs have been lost. Says it’s been a devastating downturn in the economy because of the impact on coal. Says eastern Kentucky has an opportunity to diversify its economy. Says the region has many features that can make it successful, like infrastructure expansion. But Adkins says more needs to be done to get IT businesses and advanced manufacturing industries to the region, and points to aerospace companies as a key example. Adkins says depopulation of the region is “completely wrong” and must be stopped.

On opportunities for the region, House Speaker Greg Stumbo wants more baccalaureate programs in eastern Kentucky. He says education is the key to solving the problems of the mountains. He also wants to develop export program for coal. He says coal is a bipartisan-supported industry and proclaims that there will always be a market for coal somewhere in the world.

Sen. Ray Jones says that while the region develops a new economy, it needs to retain the brain power that’s already here. He says he wants a job retraining program to help skilled coal workers retool. He also wants to revitalize the coal economy to get the most out of existing industry infrastructure. Jones concludes by saying the White House “doesn’t have a clue” about how their energy policy has hurt the region.

Rep. Leslie Combs says constituents don’t come to her asking for a coal mining job. They say, “find me a job.” They want to work, and they want to work hard in their home region, Combs says.

Sen. Robert Stivers says it’s not just about creating any baccalaureate degrees, but officials should focus on degrees that the region needs, such as in health care and information technology.

Sen. Brandon Smith says successful business recruitment efforts must start by understanding who the available workers are and who the consumers are. He says that in the world today, we do everything on our laptop. The “Archie Bunker concept” of a worker who goes to a job then goes home no longer exists. Smith says we have the people who can develop the products for the new consumers. He concludes that the lives that we’ve known can completely change forever and no longer fall victim to cyclical highs and lows of the economy.

On coal severance taxes, Speaker Stumbo says it’s vital that more of those funds return to the Appalachian counties. He says the ship of Kentucky cannot float without more investment in eastern Kentucky. Rep. Adkins adds that coal severance funds have been wisely spent on infrastructure improvements in region.

On four-laning the Mountain Parkway, Rep. Combs says building roads creates opportunities for economic development. Road projects keep money circulating through those communities, she contends. Combs says that once the Mountain Parkway is complete, there will be a four-way highway system from Pikeville to Paducah. She says some people fear the parkway will make it easier for people to leave, but Combs contends it will make it easier for people to come to the region.

On boosting tourism in eastern Kentucky, Sen. Smith says the region has only scratched the surface of what could be done with tourism. He says these communities must have all the parts of the puzzle they need to compete, including recreation, golf courses, performing arts, and more. Adkins says tourism is the key to retaining good jobs and bringing more business to the region in the future. Speaker Stumbo adds cleaning up the trash in eastern Kentucky is necessary to make it a place where people want to visit. Senate President Stumbo says eco-tourism should be better promoted: horseback riding, fishing, elk hunting, etc.

Finally when asked about hope for the region, Rep. Adkins says the SOAR initiative is a great source of encouragement for him. Sen. Smith says the region’s young people and exciting new innovations like 3-D printing give him optimism about the future. Sen. Stivers says if you can’t find hope in eastern Kentucky you need to move somewhere else. Rep. Combs encourages the region’s youth to have confidence in their abilities and dreams. Sen. Jones says seeing more than 1,000 people in attendance at the summit gives him hope. Rep. Stumbo says he’s inspired by the power of conviction and a desire to be part of the solution he sees among eastern Kentuckians.

2:28 p.m.: Gov. Steve Beshear is introducing U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez. Beshear says says SOAR has been on Perez’s radar for a long time. Says Perez hails from Buffalo, a community devastated by the collapse of the steel industry.

Perez thanks Gov. Steve Beshear and Congressman Hal Rogers for their bipartisan work on SOAR. Perez says the federal government is “all in” on the SOAR effort. He says he as an acute understanding of the challenges facing eastern Kentucky. Says in his hometown of Buffalo, New York, 20,000 people worked for Bethlehem Steel, had a vibrant economy with a seemingly endless future. But that all changed with the global economy took hold.

Perez says it’s important to invest in human capital so people can keep pace with a changing global economy. He says the economy in Kentucky and around the nation is moving in the right direction. But he acknowledges that challenges still persist. Perez says the challenge for us as we move ahead is that we continue to work together as a nation to create shared prosperity for everyone.

He notes the competitive grants eastern Kentucky has secured. Perez says the challenges the region faces are interconnected, so the federal agencies are beginning to work together to help address some of these issues. He lists several multi-million dollar grants the state has received recently.

Perez says training people for work and praying that they find jobs is no longer a viable workforce development strategy. He mentions former coal miners who have been able to transition to the jobs of tomorrow. Says IT jobs can be done here in Silicon Hollow, not just Silicon Valley. He also says the Medicaid expansion pursued by Gov. Beshear will enable the health care sector to remain strong in Kentucky, which in turn will create good, middle-class jobs.

“I come to you with an unrelenting sense of optimism,” Perez says, which he credits to the leadership of Gov. Beshear and Rep. Rogers. He says building a 21st century economy requires a 21st century infrastructure, which is why the effort to bring broadband to region is so important.

Perez finishes his remarks by saying this is one of the most resilient communities that I’ve ever been to, one that understands that we all succeed when we all succeed. That understands the education dividend, that the more we invest in human capital, the better the returns will be. We are all in with you, Perez says. “I am unrelentingly optimistic because of the people I’ve met in this community,” he continues, people who have been kicked in the gut but aren’t going to let that get them down. To say that zip code will never determine destiny. We will succeed, Perez concludes.

2:05 p.m.: Coming up at 2:15 p.m., a presentation by U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez.

1 p.m.: More breakout sessions underway for the next hour. Topics include building a culture of innovative entrepreneurship, community health, recruiting industry to rural areas, and tourism, arts, and heritage as an economic driver.

11:15 a.m.: The session on engaging the next generation of leaders begins with Jen Carter of Space Trek. She says aerospace-related products are Kentucky’s number one export at nearly $8 billion exported last year. She explains the various aerospace studies programs at Morehead State University and through other organizations that engage college as well as high school students. Project like these directly prepare students with skills needed to join the aerospace workforce, Carter says. She notes recruiting girls into these programs is a key goal.

Kevin Smith talks about his organizations, YPEK (Young Professionals of East Kentucky) and Rural Up! He says YPEK seeks to empower young professionals and retain them in their eastern Kentucky hometowns. YPEK promotes relationship building, dialoging on issues, and community engagement among individuals 21 – 40 years old in 32 eastern Kentucky counties.

Rural Up! is a program that teaches middle and high school students computer coding skills. Smith says only four high schools in Appalachian Kentucky offer computer technology classes. He explains the Rural Up! creates an environment for students where they have too much fun to stop learning.

Delaney Stevens is with the Rogers Scholar program at the Center for Rural Development in Somerset. He says the program works with the region’s young people and was designed to give future leaders reasons to stay home in Kentucky. “No young person should have to leave home to find their future,” Stevens says. He explains the the program receives 400 applications for the 60 slots available to students each year. Their work focuses on leadership, technology, entrepreneurship, and community service.

Stevens says the Center also offer separate programs to expose high school freshman to math, science, and technology career opportunities, as well as to give students entrepreneurial leadership skills.

Kentucky Innovation Network Director Johnathan Gay says his organization provides business consulting to current entrepreneurs and works to foster entrepreneurship among the state’s young people. Gay explains how the network partners with colleges, universities, and organizations around the commonwealth on various programs for students and citizens who want to learn new skills or start their own businesses.

11 a.m.: Breakout sessions coming up at 11:15. They will explore engaging the next generation of leaders, local food economies, preparing tomorrow’s workforce, the role of software coding in future job growth, and aligning private/public/philanthropic investments for collective impact across the region.

10 a.m.: Translating Broadband into Economic Growth
Corey Jones says his company, Troll and Toad, is an online retailer of toys and collectibles. It is one of the largest employers in the Corbin area with 150 employees, selling Pokémon cards. He says the Internet doesn’t care about geography. “The Internet is a new frontier to pioneer,” Jones explains. Every website in Kentucky could send some percentage of their revenue to taxes, he explains. The Internet can create jobs, which creates exports for the commonwealth. The Internet has no mountains in the way, and offers unlimited potential. Jones says Kentucky can make the future or be overcome by it.

Missy Sailor of the Kentucky Consular Center of the U.S. State Department says the Williamsburg facility started with about 90 employees who processed paper VISA applications. Now the facility is 100 percent electronic and uses some 300 employees. They can review 200 applications an hour via facial recognition of those applying for VISAs to travel to the United States. She says she is a native of Whitley County and is very fortunate to be able to work at Kentucky Consular Center. She says she wants other local folks to have similar opportunities so they won’t have to leave the region to find work.

Russ Hensley is CEO of Hensley-Elam and Associates, Shatterbox LLC, and The Computer Place, which focus on data management, security, and recovery. He calls himself a “digital plumber” who helps customers leverage broadband capabilities. Hensley says says broadband is a critical piece to eastern Kentucky’s success.

Darrell Maynard of Eastern Telephone & Technologies says eastern Kentucky must fill the void in the coal, gas, and timber economies with a secondary economy of the tech industry, comprised of hardware deployment and maintenance, software coding, and Internet retailing. The key component of that is broadband, which is the bricks and mortar of the new economy. He says just like eastern Kentucky needed electric service that came in the early 20th century, the region now needs affordable robust broadband, which will be the catalyst for tomorrow’s technology based economy in eastern Kentucky. But Maynard cautions it’s not just about installing broadband, but he says the region needs the latest, highest-speed version of broadband available.

9:30 a.m. Working with our Federal Partners
Jay Williams is Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development in the Economic Development Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce. He says the mission of his agency is to work with communities to move them along the economic continuum, to move them to places that lead to more job creation and a better quality of life for their citizens. Williams says it’s the only agency within the federal government that does that kind of community work.

Williams says SOAR represents a tremendous opportunity to reintroduce eastern Kentucky to the rest of the country and beyond. There are other regions facing similar economic challenges, according to Williams, and those places are watching the success of the SOAR efforts in Appalachian Kentucky. “You’ve created a brand, you’ve created a buzz, you’ve created a sense of excitement.” They want to know how you did it, he says.

On the loss of coal jobs, Williams says the pain is real and the losses are significant. Families are left wondering how to provide the food, shelter, and quality of life they’ve become accustomed to. He says recovery will come through a variety of federal agencies to make sure people can keep lights on, food on the table, as well as get prepared for new employment opportunities. Williams explains technology will be key to that, so people will need training on the new skill sets high-tech jobs require. He says he came from Youngstown, Ohio, a city that lost over half of it’s population when the steel industry collapsed. Williams says there was no federal response when it first happened, but now the federal government trying to address these issues sooner and more effectively.

Regarding other opportunities the region could embrace, Lillian Salerno, Administrator for the Rural Business-Cooperative Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, suggests looking to farmers’ markets and local food economies. Salerno says there has been a 400 percent growth rate in farmers markets. She explains it’s a great way to keep dollars in a community and be more energy efficient by keeping locally grown food close to home. She hopes USDA will do more investing in those markets, especially under last year’s revisions to the federal farm bill. She also says there are emerging export opportunities for a variety of products made in rural America.

Earl F. Gohl, Federal Co-Chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission says this is the moment to diversify your economy. He says you have the attention of your community and you have the urgency to take on the big challenges. He says it’s not something that a federal grant will solve will require everyone to work together. Gohl says education and workforce training are critical and that community colleges will be an important partner in the future of eastern Kentucky.

Wendy Spencer is CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which provides volunteers through programs like AmeriCorps and VISTA. She says regional leaders should focus on youth, which she calls “our treasure.” Spencer says it’s important for youth to be drug-free, that they get their high school diplomas, and that they’re prepared for college. She says it’s also important to look at job readiness for those who need jobs today.

The panelists concur on the importance of investing in rural America. Jay Williams says this country is only as great as its communities. He contends it’s not enough that both coasts and large urban areas are doing well. Williams explains that development won’t happen at the same time and will occur in different ways in different areas, but we won’t see the economic success the country deserves if we don’t invest in the opportunities that exist in rural America. Lillian Salerno adds that 40 percent of our military servicemen and women comes from rural America. She says it’s impossible to put a price tag on that and that it needs to be protected.