PIKEVILLE — The experiment and rescue mission that is Shaping Our Appalachian Region entered a third phase Monday by hosting an inspiring showcase of good things that are happening in Appalachian Kentucky.
The SOAR Innovation Summit had its usual diet of Kentucky politicians and federal officials, headlined by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler and Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But the real stars of the show at the Eastern Kentucky Exposition Center were nonprofits, businesses, educators and taxpayer-funded agencies that are advancing, or trying to advance, the SOAR goal of diversifying the region’s economy when its leading industry is in a historic slide.
The presenters included a business where laid-off coal miners write computer code, a high-tech entrepreneur who said he will hire 50 trainees from Eastern Kentucky, education programs sparking student interest in science and technical fields, a nonprofit trying to turn the region’s agriculture into a local food system, a foundation that has leased a reclaimed strip mine to create a world-class wildlife park, and a citizens’ group that is using faith-based approaches to fight a range of community problems.
And that was just a selection of the dozens of exhibitors who were “showcasing the solutions of our region,” which SOAR defined as the subject matter of the meeting.
“Do you believe more now than you did two hours ago?” Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, a sort of official cheerleader, asked the crowd of more than 1,000 after the presentations. Most seemed to indicate that they did.
Bevin drew special attention because during his campaign last year he did not publicly embrace SOAR, a 2013 creation of then- Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, and 5th District U.S. Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers (R-Somerset), chair of the House Appropriations Committee.
In their first board meeting as SOAR co-chairs, Bevin made plain to Rogers that he would limit to Eastern Kentucky the plan for a statewide broadband network – which Beshear and Rogers had sold to the 2014 General Assembly as a vehicle to improve high-speed Internet service in the region.
Rogers told the crowd that he and others had wondered about Bevin’s attitude toward the effort, but said the governor has “unvarnished enthusiasm for what we’re doing, and called him over for a handshake. “He’s our buddy.”
With the effort now headed by two Republicans, Rogers maintained that the effort would remain “non-partisan,” and state Senate President Robert Stivers of Manchester cited bipartisan efforts in the recent legislative session as proof.
His prime example was the use of state coal-severance-tax funds to create an endowment for programs in the region, an idea that had been suggested at the first SOAR summit in December 2013, modeled after one in the Iron Range of Minnesota.
Bevin said, “It’s something, frankly, I wish we had started 10 or 20 years ago.”
Stivers said the endowment was a sign that SOAR is gradually creating “a world where people are no longer worried about party affiliation or county lines.” In earlier meetings, Rogers said overcoming county rivalries would be the effort’s main obstacle.
Stivers was followed by the stars of the show, the “innovation showcase” of presenters. Many if not most were active before SOAR was created, but Rogers said in an interview that it deserves “a lot” of the credit for the innovative activity because it has created an encouraging environment for entrepreneurship in an area where the dominance of the coal industry suppressed it for a century.
The presenters included:
• Ankur Gopal, head of Interapt, who announced to applause that his tech firm “is hiring in Eastern Kentucky,” with 50 slots for training at Big Sandy Community and Technical College’s Paintsville campus.
• Rusty Justice of BitSource, a Pikeville firm that does web applications with code written by nine ex-miners. “The most valuable resource in Eastern Kentucky is not its coal,” he said, “but the men and women who work to produce that coal.” Lynn Parrish, the firm’s other co-founder, said in an interview that writing code “is a trade, like mining coal.”
• Jeff Hawkins, executive director of the Hazard-based Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, recipient of many state and federal grants for innovative programs in schools and a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation collaboration. He also showed a video in which Paul Green, a leader of KVEC’s Appalachian Renaissance Initiative, said the main export from Eastern Kentucky has not been coal, but its people.
• Brad Thomas of East Kentucky Power Cooperative, which has mounted an effort to steer students into science, technology, engineering and math and “create the largest STEM-based workforce in the United States,” starting with national board certification for teachers of those subjects.
• Aleta Botts, executive director of the Kentucky Center for Agriculture and Rural Development, which helps farmers with business plans, marketing and so on. “We have enormous opportunities in this region,” a 21-county area of southeastern Kentucky with 5,000 farms, she said.
• David Ledford of the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation, which wants to create a 12,000-acre wildlife park with elk, bear, deer and 240 bird species on the reclaimed Mountain Drive Coal Co. surface mine in Bell County. He said projections based on an elk park in Pennsylvania, are that it would generate $124 million a year in tourism spending.
• Eric Mills, an Inez lawyer who talked about Martin County’s faith-based efforts to address its social and economic problems, “not just an economic poverty but a spiritual deficit.”
• Jeff Whitehead of Teleworks USA, which he said has placed 250 eastern Kentucky residents in telecommuting jobs. He said the potential of that sort of work is limited only by “our imagination and our Internet access.”
Wheeler, the FCC chair, said high-speed Internet “is the most important commodity for the 21st Century.” Coal was “the essential commodity” in the two previous centuries “because the economy ran on it. The information economy of the 21st century runs on high-speed broadband, and if you don’t have that commodity you’re not part of the new economy.”
Wheeler noted the efforts of Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative, which has extended high-speed fiber-optic cable to all its customers (including 150 of the Teleworks clients) with the help of federal loans, economic-stimulus grants and the FCC’s Universal Service Fund, which it recently shifted to broadband from basic telephone service. He said the experience proves “If you can do it here, you can do it anywhere.”