SOAR Working Groups Deliver Key Recommendations
Ten working groups organized under the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative presented their top findings on Tuesday.
Despite the different working group topics, several common themes emerged among the recommendations: the need for cross-agency collaboration, especially in economic development; a desire for training and investment in entrepreneurship; and a strong interest in a robust public relations effort to both market the region to the United States and beyond and to reinforce the citizens’ understanding and support of the uniquely eastern Kentucky story.
The recommendations – some familiar, some novel – are the synthesis of a summer spent talking with eastern Kentucky residents in more than 100 meetings and listening sessions across the region. In all, more than 2,500 citizens participated in discussions about topics ranging from education to tourism to economic development.
“It’s clear that the people of eastern Kentucky are still energized and excited about the possibilities developing under the SOAR initiative, and they demonstrated their commitment by attending these meetings and offering ideas to further the work,” said Governor Steve Beshear. “That continued enthusiasm is key to making some of these innovative suggestions work.”
“The first year of SOAR has been a fruitful season of information gathering, organizational efforts, developing partnerships, and capturing funding opportunities,” said Congressman Rogers. “However, as the season is changing, SOAR now moves toward the harvest and must prepare for future successes and bigger opportunities.”
The SOAR Futures Forum committee, chaired by former Governor Paul Patton, met for the first time on Tuesday. The committee will focus on long-term strategies to improve the region. Members of this group will work with the executive committee and work groups to translate immediate and ongoing efforts into future strategies. The Futures Forum committee will also develop a SOAR 2025 Vision to be presented to the region next spring.
New Announcements Supporting SOAR
As a result of the SOAR Health Impact Series in August featuring Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Congressman Rogers announced that Dr. Frieden has committed a full-time CDC senior staff member and additional support for the SOAR initiative for one year beginning in October.
The CDC representative, who will report to the SOAR executive director, will bring additional knowledge, expertise and experience in planning and managing public health activities. The staffer will be housed in the SOAR office.
Two organizations also announced financial support for SOAR. The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) is pledging up to $750,000 over the next four years to underwrite half of the start-up expenses for SOAR administration, including the salary for the executive director. The Kentucky Association of Counties (KACO) donated $5,000 toward SOAR operations.
Working Group Recommendations
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 ten years. Some highlights of the shortest-term recommendations follow.
The full report submitted to the SOAR executive committee will be available at
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 eastern Kentucky young 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 & 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.
The SOAR executive board is interviewing candidates for the position of Executive Director. The second annual SOAR Summit will be held sometime in early 2015, although the date and location will be determined by the new director.
About the SOAR initiative
The SOAR initiative was launched by Gov. Beshear and Congressman Hal Rogers late last year, after a stunning downturn in the coal market exacerbated historic challenges in Eastern Kentucky related to unemployment and poverty. More than 1,700 Kentuckians attended a one-day SOAR summit in Pikeville in December. SOAR is intended to help the region develop and put into action new locally-oriented strategies to attack those persistent challenges.