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Two large public gatherings are planned in the next week by groups trying to create a brighter future for Eastern Kentucky.
They come from different sides of the "war on coal" debate that has polarized discussion of these issues, but they have more in common than you might think.
The first event, Thursday in Frankfort, is the 10th annual I Love Mountains Day, organized by the citizens' group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. (Information and registration: Kftc.org.)
In what has become an annual rite, hundreds of people will march to the Capitol steps and urge the governor and General Assembly to stop the coal industry's most destructive surface-mining practices. And they will be ignored.
Few legislators will come out to hear them. Neither will the governor, nor any candidate for governor who has any chance of being elected. Most politicians think they must be unequivocal "friends of coal" to get elected, regardless of the toll on Kentucky's land, air, water and public health.
The other event, Monday in Pikeville, is the second summit meeting of Shaping Our Appalachian Region. SOAR is a bipartisan effort to improve life in Eastern Kentucky that was launched in 2013 by Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers. (Information and registration: Soar-ky.org.)
Eastern Kentucky's coal industry has been eliminating jobs for decades as mines were mechanized, coal reserves depleted and deep mining replaced by "mountaintop removal" and other forms of surface mining.
But the job losses have mounted in recent years because of cheap natural gas, cheaper coal from elsewhere and the Obama administration's better-late-than-never actions to fight pollution and climate change.
Politicians and business leaders have had to admit that most of Eastern Kentucky's coal jobs are never coming back and that new strategies are needed to diversify the economy.
That led to the creation of SOAR, whose 12 working committees have spent the past year conducting more than 100 "listening sessions" throughout the region to hear public comments, gather ideas, assess needs and set priorities.
Strategy Summit attendees will review the committees' findings and discuss next steps. How those discussions play out 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. We should get some indication of that Monday, when there will be at least a couple of elephants in the room.
Eastern Kentucky is one of America's least-healthy places, with high rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and drug abuse. Smoking, obesity, poverty, poor eating habits and lack of exercise are to blame for much of it. But not all of it.
One of the biggest concerns citizens expressed in the health committee's listening sessions was the health effects of surface mining. Scientific studies increasingly have found high rates of cancer, birth defects and other problems in mining areas that can't be dismissed by other factors. Will SOAR explore that issue, or ignore it?
Another elephant in the room will be President Barack Obama's Feb. 1 proposal to release $1 billion in abandoned mine land funds to create jobs on environmental cleanup projects.
The long-overdue action could be a huge boost for Eastern Kentucky. But many politicians have reacted cautiously, since it comes from a president they love to hate. This proposal should be a big topic of discussion at the summit. But will it be?
Eastern Kentucky needs many things to have a brighter future: better schools, better infrastructure, less-corrupt politics, more inclusive leadership and a more diverse economy. And, as much as anything, it needs a healthier population and a cleaner environment.
Coal mining has done some good things for Eastern Kentucky during the past century. Although its role will continue to diminish, coal will be an important part of the economy for years. But the coal industry's damage must be reckoned with. The best way to start cleaning up a mess is to stop making it bigger.
By Tom Eblen, columnist
February 10, 2015;
Open Letter to: Mr. Mayor Slone,
The Honorable H. Slone, Mayor, Louisa, KY.,
It has been some time since you were installed as Mayor, hopefully you are settling in ok, getting your feet wet, and enjoying the honeymoon. The following months will set the tone of your administration and define your potential success or failure. I certainly hope it is the former.
In my 20 years of active duty with the U.S. Army and 26 years of working with the Army as a civilian, I have learned many things in the realm of leadership. I feel, the following learned trait of leadership could be applied to your situation as a new leader...that is “Take care of your people, and they will take care of you.” Pretty simple, if you stop and think about it. A leader, to succeed at anything MUST have the support of those he/she is leading. The smallest thing will make a difference.
With Spring and Summer starting to wake up in is not too early to start planning for the summer. My suggestion is to have a monthly “Concert on the Court House Square.” I know there are many former band members in Louisa and with a little persuasion could bring out their instruments and play again, mix in some HS band students...”shazam” a concert band. Over the following months, there could be local “Rock” bands, Gospel Music, County music; Even sell tickets and draw a winner, who will become a guest band director, with the money going to support the concerts one time allow for a local talent contest, invite groups from neighboring towns to participate.
People would bring their own chairs, blankets, food, snacks drinks, plus have some vendors on hand, with a small % lf their proceeds going to the Concert committee and at the conclusion of the season...give away free food, & drinks.
The possibilities are Limitless!
I suggest a canvas of Louisa for a “Take charge” person to serve as a coordinator. And you Mr. Mayor could serve as the MC...Say until a winner is drawn. These types of community have met with tremendous success here in Huntsville, Al and Birmingham, Al.
I am very sorry that I’m not in close proximity to participate, but willing to serve as long distant advisor.
Thanks Mr. Mayor, for listening..
A person who loves LOUISA,
February 9, 2015;
By Al Cross
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky
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. 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 would 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.”