Complete coverage of Shaping Our Appalachian Region Summit

By: Whitney Burks, Matthew Rand, Tanner Hesterberg, Morgan Lentes Email
By: Whitney Burks, Matthew Rand, Tanner Hesterberg, Morgan Lentes Email
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PIKEVILLE, Ky. (WYMT)- Below you will find complete coverage of all the stories WYMT covered at the Shaping Our Appalachian Region Summit in Pikeville. Keep checking back as more content is added.


'Super I-Way' to expand broadband internet access statewide

By Matthew Rand

Governor Steve Beshear and Congressman Hal Rogers Wednesday outlined their plan to bring high-speed broadband internet to the entire state.

The plan calls for the use of what's known as 'black fiber,' which Rep. Rogers explains is unprogrammed, meaning just about anyone could have access.

Gov. Beshear says the need for high-speed internet access is great, especially in underserved parts of Eastern Kentucky.

"We rank 46th in broadband availability and 23 percent of the state's population does not have broadband access at all," he said.

High-speed internet access was one of the suggestions that arose out of last month's SOAR Summit.

"It levels the playing field," said Rogers. "It takes away our historic barriers to better jobs; the terrain and isolation."

The estimated $100 million project would build nearly 3,000 miles of fiber infrastructure. Phase one will target Eastern Kentucky.

The project will be supported by $60 million in state bonds, along with $40 million in federal and private sources.

"I'm hopeful that this will be the beginning of federal investments for broadband in our hard-hit coal fields," Rogers said.

While no silver bullet, Beshear and Rogers say improving broadband access will help Eastern Kentucky compete in a global economy.

"We need a system that is attractive to high tech, knowledge-based and information-intensive businesses," said Beshear.

Officials say the project could be finished in as little as two or three years.


Lawmakers ponder EKY's future at SOAR legislative panel session

By Tanner Hesterberg

Dozens of lawmakers from Eastern Kentucky and across the state took part in a special panel as the SOAR Summit concluded Monday afternoon.

Elected officials who spoke during the forum seemed to agree on two main points - Eastern Kentucky needs to diversify its economy beyond coal; and we cannot attain that goal without working together.

Many lawmakers concerned about the future of Eastern Kentucky admit becoming less dependent on the coal industry is an uncomfortable thought.

"I believe in coal," said Sen. Robin Webb, D-18th District. "I still believe it's a transitional, multi-generational fuel that's gonna be here and be a part of this economy no matter what. But we have no choice."

Finding ways to bring non coal-related jobs to the region is a necessary step to making sure Eastern kentucky keeps pace in a global economy, leaders at SOAR said.

"I'm Eastern Kentucky from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet and proud of it, and I know you are too," Rep. Rocky Adkins, D-99th District, said. "I want to have the same kind of communities and same kind of region and same type of hope than any other region throughout this country."

It's a region were many people rely heavily on government assistance.

"I do not want anybody else bringing more checks and handouts in here to us," said Sen. Brandon Smith, R-30th District. "That's not what we need. There's nothing more demeaning to somebody capable of doing something and contributing and offering something than to just give them something for them to go away."

Even though coal is a huge part of Eastern Kentucky's heritage, legislators said they cannot let that stop them from pursuing a better future.

"We have to put tradition and our pride and egos aside,” Sen. Ray Jones, D-31st District, said. “And I think we do that not as Republicans and Democrats, but as Eastern Kentuckians. I think there is a bright future.”

Former Governor Patton led SOAR session on job creation

By: Matthew Rand

The SOAR Summit consisted of several breakout sessions Monday, with topics ranging from tourism to health.

One session was designed to gather public input on ways to create jobs and keep those jobs in Eastern Kentucky.

Former Kentucky Governor Paul Patton led the discussion.

Patton says Eastern Kentucky is hemorrhaging coal mining jobs, and the trend is having a ripple effect on local economies.

"The average coal job's value is $81,000," he said. "Each lost coal job can mean a loss of three or more jobs in Eastern Kentucky."

Patton headed up the afternoon breakout session on job creation, which looked at ways to bring more high-paying jobs to the mountains.

"If you've got an executive that's locating a company and they're making a decision: I'm going to be in Eastern Kentucky or I'm going to be somewhere else," said Jared Arnett, President and CEO of the Southeast Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. "How do we compete?"

People suggested a number of solutions, including investing in coal alternatives like natural gas, oil, and bio-fuel.

Others said evaporating funds for education are leaving students unprepared for a 21st century economy.

"This is devastating to students who are already at an economic disadvantage," said one woman, who said she was a teacher. "I would ask that we all collectively talk to our legislators to make sure they make education a priority in the next session."

One thing everyone seemed to agree on was that Eastern Kentucky's greatest economic asset remained its people.

Officials concluded the session by thanking everyone for their participation, and cautioned that whatever change comes from the summit will be incremental, and will not take place overnight.


Shaping Our Appalachian Region Summit starts with talks of diversification

By: Whitney Burks

The Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR, Summit kicked off Monday morning at the East Kentucky Expo Center with nearly 1,700 people in attendance. There is an air about the region of hope, hope that something can be done to move this region forward.

The Summit sessions early in the day focused on the idea that there is hope in the region for change. Speakers talked about diversifying a region that is so used to relying heavily on the coal industry.
With nearly six thousand miners out of work since 2011, political leaders know it is time to switch the focus.

Governor Steve Beshear told us, “I think you're going to have to get Eastern Kentucky and the people of Eastern Kentucky to work more as a region and I think they're ready to do that. The congressman and I were talking this morning about how this can be different from past efforts and I think it's because of the sense of urgency.”

The sessions included speakers from a region in Minnesota that faced similar challenge, a success story of a region able to overcome its difficulties.

The political leaders here say this is just the very beginning of planning stages for SOAR, but they say they expect to see real change for this region in the near future.

Participants at SOAR summit generally optimistic about event

By: Whitney Burkes

A common them at the SOAR Summit today was hope and a belief that economic change can and will come to his region. Political leaders say it is an urgent situation, moving Eastern Kentucky away from relying so heavily on the coal industry.
Some agree like former host of Comment On Kentucky like Al Smith. He said,” Will it happen? Yeah it's going to happen because they're not going to dig coal in Eastern Kentucky anymore, not like we did in the past.”

Others say completely switching the focus entirely from coal is maybe not the best idea. Al Cross from the Institute for Rural Journalism said, “Coal is going to continue to be the largest single economic player in this region outside of government and it needs to be at the table. It does not need to see activities like this as going against its interests.”

But leaders at the SOAR Summit say this is just the beginning. They will continue gathering ideas and to plan. The key they say is bipartisanship, which was evident by the two pulling the Summit together, Democratic Governor Steve Beshear and Republican Congressman Hal Rogers.

Al Smith is hopeful the problems the region faces are solvable. He said, “There are solutions in eastern Kentucky but you're going to have to band together and build a critical mass of support to make change happen.”

Participants at the Summit say they have a vision of crossing county lines, bringing the region together, and moving Eastern Kentucky's economy forward.


Father and son from Minnesota share how their town rebounded after mining slump

By: Morgan Lentes

There’s been a lot of talk since the announcement of the SOAR Summit about how specifically to get Eastern Kentucky back on track economically. While those questions might still be around after today, earlier we got to see a brief look at how another area facing similar issues was able to turn things around.

Two men from Minnesota spoke at the SOAR Summit today, because they’ve shared similar struggles that Eastern Kentuckians do. Now they're prospering once more.

Tony Seritch says, “We're seeing our unemployment shrink, we're seeing more jobs added to rural communities, in an area that has been dependent on mining for years.”

Father and son pair, Joe and Tony Sertich spoke at the summit about the decline of their own mining town and then the revival of it.

Joe Sertich told us, “We don't know what works best for Eastern Kentucky but what we do know is regionalism works. When you blur the lines across borders, when you coordinate all the difference support of the private and public sector, it works.”

One project that worked for them was embracing technology and making it available to anyone in need.

The elder Seritch said, “We know that we can work remotely if we have enough broadband and so we wanted to make it easy for people to go right on main street of their town, either learn the skills and or start a business.”

The men stress they don't have all the answers, just a helpful example to look to. However they see hope for our region.

Joe Seritch said, “ What we don't need is another large flash in the pan that isn't going anywhere and I'm convinced today that all the right political leaders were there, the young people were at the table. I think the formula for what it's going to take to really begin to pull the region up with a lot of hard work has been launched.”

Tony Sertich says their unemployment numbers are now around 6 percent in Minnesota.
The men offered a few other pieces of advice during their talk today. They say folks have to commit to education and look for other options besides just mining. Tourism and manufacturing are just a few.


Senate Candidate attends SOAR to learn about Eastern Kentucky’s problems

One candidate for U.S senate also attended today's SOAR summit.

Republican Matt Bevin says he came to the summit to listen and learn about the issues facing Eastern Kentucky. Bevin says he believes it is evident how much the people of the region are searching for ways to make a difference.

Commenting on the region he said, “I see joy, but I see sadness here and it touches me. It moves me how people are desperate and hungry and hoping for some kind of change going forward.”

Senator Mitch McConnell and Democratic front-runner Alison Lundergan Grimes did not attend.
Senator Rand Paul, who's being mentioned as a presidential candidate in 2016, told us last week he thought the summit was a good idea and would have a representative there.

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