SLADE — The issue-oriented advisory council for the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative held its first meeting Aug. 10 at Natural Bridge State Park and collectively decided that each of their issue groups should focus on how it could contribute to bringing more jobs to the Kentucky’s 54 Appalachian counties.
“What resonates and what everyone is in agreement with is the jobs,” SOAR Executive Director Jared Arnett said. “That is what they think SOAR is, is creating jobs and economic opportunity and that (is the) expectation…So at the end of the day, jobs is the goal, and everything else is how do we support that goal.”
SOAR is a bipartisan effort to lift Appalachian Kentucky’s economy. The nonprofit organization was created last year by Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican 5th District U.S. Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers of Somerset.
Arnett noted that SOAR is not the first group, nor the only group, to work toward improving the quality of life in Appalachia, but said that it is an organization that could serve as the connector of these groups.
“SOAR is not just an economic development organization, it is a change agent that connects all of these groups to get the work done,” Arnett said. “Part of it is resources, but I think the bigger piece of it is connections.”
The Advisory Council is scheduled to meet quarterly to discuss opportunities and challenges in the region; to make sure each of the groups are working in a spirit of collaboration and communication; and to offer advice to the executive board of directors.
The original working groups are: Agriculture, Community & Regional Foods; Broadband; Business Incubation; Business Recruitment; Education and Retraining; Health; Infrastructure; Leadership Development & Youth Engagement; Regional Collaboration & Identity; and Tourism, including Natural Resources, Arts & Heritage. Arnett referred to them as focus groups, no longer working groups.
“These 10 areas of focus are the building blocks, the foundation of how to change that map,” he said, referring to an Appalachian Regional Commission map showing that Kentucky has far more economically distressed counties than any other Appalachian state.
Dr. William Hacker, the new chair of the health group, summed up how all of the focus groups must work together to create an economically vibrant and healthy region.
“Economic opportunity is the cornerstone of getting people jobs and employment,” he said. “That then requires good education. Those two combined set the stage for people to pay more attention to their own health and the health of their community.”
Community engagement was a common theme throughout the meeting, which is meant to be achieved through annual “roundtables” held by each of the focus group chairs.
These meetings will include invited guests specific to the topic at hand and will be open to the public to “capture and gather new ideas,” Arnett said. The groups determined their main objectives last year, and through the roundtables will focus on how to best implement their objectives.
“Roundtables will re-engage the community and keep them interested in your area of focus,” Arnett said.
The formats of these meetings will vary to best suit the needs of the group, including an online webinar. The SOAR website is also being updated to allow, among other things, a more obvious place for public comment.
Most of the group chairs voiced that they would like to see more involvement from young people. The council committed to exploring new ways to include this demographic that one member said was so important because they “are our future.”
Patrick is with the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.