I remembering hearing about the SOAR Initiative when it was first announced in 2013.
Like a lot of people working for a better Appalachia, I was excited to hear that the question of “what comes next?” was finally receiving some high-level attention.
Last week’s summit was the first time I had connected directly with the initiative and I had high hopes. Although SOAR focuses specifically on enhancing economic opportunities in eastern Kentucky, I was counting on bringing back ideas and inspiration that could be applied to Appalachian Voices’ economic development work in far southwest Virginia.
The event was well attended — an estimated 1,300 people showed up. But, even with so many who care deeply about transitioning the eastern Kentucky economy gathering in one place, there was disappointingly little time or space created for discussion amongst the people who are doing the lion’s share of the on-the-ground work in Appalachian communities. There was a lot of “talking at” and not nearly enough “talking with.”
MACED’s Ivy Brashear had a similar reaction and shared her thoughts in an eloquent post titled “SOAR still important, but second summit falls short of expectations.”
This is not to say that some of the “talking at” portions of the summit were not inspiring or worth hearing. U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez was on the scene, and he gave a very enthusiastic and hopeful speech about the future of the region.
During his plenary address, Secretary Perez officially rolled out $35 million in federal implementation grants available through the POWER Initiative, a coordinated effort led by the U.S. Economic Development Administration to invest in communities negatively impacted by changes in the coal industry and power sector.
These grants were first announced back in March, and were described by the Obama administration as “a down payment” on the POWER+ Plan.
There was plenty of talk in the hallways among my colleagues about POWER+, and I heard a few related questions asked during Q&A section of multiple presentations. But I was surprised that no one on stage that I saw throughout the day mentioned it on their own. My most recent post was all about how POWER+ deserved a warmer welcome, and it seems like that’s still the case.
Even though POWER+ got the cold shoulder, there was a lot of attention given to other worthy issues such as broadband expansion, technology job creation, local foods, youth leadership development and the arts.
Taken as a whole, SOAR is an outstanding example of regional, bipartisan collaboration on the biggest question facing central Appalachia. When so many different players come to the table with varying backgrounds and interests, it’s naturally a delicate process to keep the boat afloat.
It was never a secret that the coal economy was headed for an eventual collapse. Regional production peaked in 1997, but a web of social and political forces have kept clinging to the past. Finally, we’ve reached a place where we see a robust regional discussion and federal programs focused on diversifying the central Appalachian economy.
The role of Appalachian Voices and our allies is, and will continue to be, ensuring that promising initiatives like SOAR include new ideas and ways of thinking are not stuck in that old and tired web that no longer serves the best interests of Appalachian communities.