Summit seeks solutions for struggling coal region’s economy

PIKEVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Community leaders are meeting in a Kentucky region hurt by the collapsing coal industry, seeking strategies to help redevelop the area’s economy.

Shaping Our Appalachian Region or SOAR is convening its fifth annual summit this week in Pikeville, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported Wednesday. The group’s role is to organize projects and gather political and business leaders to discuss solutions for Eastern Kentucky’s problems, SOAR officials said.

Among the summit’s objectives are increasing broadband connectivity, facilitating workforce training, supporting new businesses and factories, and reducing health concerns including obesity and drug abuse. Bolstering industry, agriculture and tourism opportunities are also goals.

High-speed internet is vital for Appalachian Kentucky’s future, SOAR’s executive board Chairwoman Kimberly McCann said.

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers is a Republican who represents Kentucky’s 5th Congressional District, which includes most of the state’s eastern region. He said SOAR’s initiative is making a difference although progress on diversifying Eastern Kentucky’s economy has not come as quickly as he would have liked.

SOAR formed when coal industry employment numbers decreased nearly 30 percent in the region. Breathitt, Whitley, Knott and other counties that were affected most lost more than 60 percent of coal jobs from 2011 to 2013.

Although some projects have not yet begun, SOAR wants to support manufacturers that take risks by investing in the region, SOAR’s Executive Director Jared Arnett said.

Peter Hille, president of the economic development group MACED that has sought for decades to improve the quality of life in Central Appalachia, said more work needs to be done.

“What have we got to show for it? I think everybody would say not enough. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep going, it means we should redouble our efforts,” he said.