This week citizens from across central Appalachia will converge on Pikeville for the 2019 SOAR Summit. More than 90 business and organizations are scheduled to participate in the event as proof that collaboration and innovation are starting to revitalize the economy of eastern Kentucky.
Congressman Hal Rogers (KY-5) and former Gov. Steve Beshear launched SOAR, or Shaping Our Appalachian Region, in 2013 to economically transform a part of the state that was devastated by the decline in the coal industry.
“It’s an exciting thing,” says Rogers, “One of the most exciting things I’ve been involved in over the years… and it’s beginning to pay off.”
The Congressman appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss the work of SOAR and other economic and social issues facing his southeastern Kentucky district.
Rebuilding the Appalachian Economy
Rogers sees SOAR as a matter of necessity.
For years, federal government agencies and programs have tried to revitalize Appalachia, all with varying degrees of success. Finally, Rogers says, it was time for local citizens, businesses, and organizations to come together to address the region’s challenges.
“It’s a chance for us to write our own future, the people of eastern Kentucky,” he says. “SOAR was an effort to get ourselves involved with our own ideas, our own energy, investment and the like to recreate a profitable environment for business.”
SOAR focuses on seven different tracks of opportunity – from workforce and small business development to tourism, health care, agriculture and industry. One of the most visible efforts of the organization is to bring affordable broadband internet access to every home in the region. That project evolved into a public-private partnership called KentuckyWired, which will bring high-speed internet access to the entire state.
But the five-year old project is significantly behind schedule and over budget. A recent state audit shows KentuckyWired could cost taxpayers some $1.5 billion over the next 30 years.
“It was sluggish, but we’ve never done this before anywhere in the country,” says the Congressman. “We will be the only state that’s ever done this, so we had to see our way through the fog to make it happen.”
So far, contractors have connected the broadband backbone around Louisville, Lexington, and northern Kentucky, along with a spur to Somerset that will eventually be used to help wire the counties in Rogers’ district.
But the Congressman says some Kentuckians are already getting a glimpse of their connected futures. Using federal grants and loans, the Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative in Jackson County has already launched high-speed internet service with gigabit connectivity for its customers.
With this new access, some 250 local residents are now working from their homes, according to Rogers. He says high-speed broadband connections can help prevent the out-migration and brain-drain that has plagued these small towns for generations.
“We’ve exported so much talent from our Appalachian region, but with this cable system, we’ll be able to work from our home here,” Rogers says. “I think it’s the economic salvation of our region.”
Another important revitalization effort for the 5th Congressional district is the expansion of the Mountain Parkway. The construction project will eventually connect Prestonsburg to I-64 near Winchester by a four-lane highway.
Rogers sees the expansion as a vital economic development tool, allowing people, goods, and services to more easily traverse the region.
“That will open up a lot of new territory,” says the Congressman.
But other infrastructure issues still remain for the region, including deteriorating roads and bridges as well as aging water and sewer systems.
“Everyone agrees that we’ve got a problem and need to fix it, but we can’t agree on where to find the money,” says Rogers. “The problem nationally is finding the money for it and the political capability to pass a bill through a very divided Congress.”
As if Kentucky’s coal miners haven’t faced enough hardships and job losses in recent news, now two other challenges await many of them.
First is the threat to miners’ pension fund, which is at risk due to investment losses during the recession, declining coal markets, and coal company bankruptcies. Officials with the United Mine Workers of America estimate that some 100,000 retired and working miners could lose their retirement and health care benefits unless the federal government intervenes to shore up the pension fund.
For four years, some coal-state lawmakers have proposed shifting money from the abandoned mine lands reclamation fund to the pension plan.
Rogers says miners have a right to be concerned.
“We’re going to try to find a way to fix it, and that’s got to be a fix that the Senate will agree to with the House and the president,” the Congressman says. “So far that’s been very difficult.”
Meanwhile, some coal miners can’t get paid for work they’ve already done. West Virginia-based coal producer Blackjewel filed for bankruptcy protection in July, but not before laying off its employees and failing to pay them for coal they had already mined.
Those unpaid miners gained national attention in recent weeks for blocking a train loaded with $1 million worth of coal from leaving one of the company’s former mine sites in eastern Kentucky.
“Coal has had some severe problems and likely won’t get much better in terms of jobs,” says Rogers, “so we’re going to have to find jobs to replace those in this new modern world.”
Drugs and Guns
There is good news on one front: Drug overdose deaths in the commonwealth dropped from 1,477 in 2017 to 1,247 in 2018, according to the state Office of Drug Control Policy. Rogers attributes the reduction to a combination local, state, federal, and private efforts to address opioid abuse.
But now Rogers says those still fighting an addiction are switching to heroin, methamphetamine, and fentanyl, which can be especially deadly.
Earlier this year the National Institutes of Health gave an $87 million grant to the University of Kentucky to work on reducing overdose deaths in 16 counties by 40 percent over the next four years. That’s the largest grant ever awarded to the school.
“UK was only one of four [institutions] nationwide that got the grants,” says Rogers. “Dr. Francis Collins at NIH told me that the UK application far succeeded over the others.”
The Congressman started his career in public life in 1969 as a Commonwealth’s Attorney for Pulaski and Rockcastle Counties. He says the drug of choice then was marijuana, and Rogers still has concerns about its use, despite a number of states now legalizing cannabis for medicinal or recreational purposes.
“I know there’s people who say that medical marijuana is a good thing,” he says. “But physicians and people who know tell me that marijuana is the main introduction to opioids and other drugs.”
In the wake of recent mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, gun control advocates have renewed their calls for universal background checks for gun purchases and other legislation that could limit access to weapons.
Rogers says he sees two main contributors to the problem of mass shootings. He says both must be addressed without impinging on the constitutional rights of legitimate gun owners.
“We’re not keeping guns away from criminals or mentally defective people, thus they go on these rampages,” he says.
Rogers has signed on to legislation that would explore if a threat assessment model used by the U.S. Secret Service could be more widely adopted. He says state and local law enforcement could use the screening technique to keep guns out of the hands of people who could pose a danger.
The second factor, according to Rogers, is violent video games and movies. He argues they are corrupting the minds of young people, which then can lead them to become violent.