Eastern Kentucky ‘will not thrive without significant and smarter investment’

SB_InvestmentA central theme is woven through all of MACED’s new strategy briefs, and it is crucial to the success of any of the other strategies: increased investment. Why is investment so important to eastern Kentucky? MACED explains in its final new strategy brief, “Ensure Meaningful Investment:”

Public and private investment in infrastructure lays the groundwork for the region to take advantage of new economic opportunities. Early childhood education, broadband access and quality health care support an engaged, capable workforce. Investments in promising economic sectors and entrepreneurship can give businesses the kick-start they need to stand on their own as part of a thriving economy.

Not that there hasn’t always been investment poured into the region, both from outside and inside sources. Much of that investment has come since the War on Poverty was announced 50 years ago and federal dollars began being redirected into the region for various programs. State money has also played a role through the several state-led initiatives that have been created in year’s past to find solutions for eastern Kentucky’s economic woes – even though those initiatives eventually fizzled out. There’s also been plenty of private money flowing through the region’s coffers through foundations and nonprofit groups.

But even with all this investment coming into the region for decades, more is still needed to enact the changes that are required to advance eastern Kentucky’s economy forward. And, as MACED explains in their brief, it’s not necessarily the amount of investment that’s coming in, but it is about how that money is invested:

Increasing investment in the region will help attract and leverage other funds, much like seed funding helps a small business get off the ground and draw in money from other investors. Public funds can leverage private philanthropy, and vice versa, through public-private partnerships. Kentucky has recently leveraged an investment in broadband to attract additional funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission.

New emphasis on “impact investing” and community philanthropy is helping empower communities to take ownership of development projects.

The region has received much-needed state and federal investment recently, with millions being dedicated to eastern Kentucky through the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative and the Appalachian Regional Commission. Special designations for priority federal funding have also come from the White House Promise Zones programs and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s StrikeForce program.

Those are definitely promising developments. However, there are still gaps in investment, even with the new federal designations, which do not provide new money, but simply give the region priority status. The ARC continually faces budget shortfalls, and the state budget is consistently under extreme strain, making the future of SOAR, or any other similar initiatives, uncertain. Local governments continue to helplessly watch as their revenue from the coal severance tax continues to dwindle. And foundations continue to leave Appalachia behind: “Between 2010 and 2013, Appalachian Kentucky received about $18.7 million in grants from foundations, whereas metro Louisville, which has a similar population size, received more than $172.4 million.”

But there are things that can be done to increase investment in the strategies outlined by MACED and in the entire region, including mapping community assets and challenges to better understand where investments are most needed, participating more in local and state government, and influencing where coal severance dollars are spent. State and federal governments should also play an important role by, among other things, establishing a permanent fund with severance dollars and creating a permanent body to develop and manage a long-term strategic plan for the region.

The road to a successful, sustainable and thriving economy in eastern Kentucky will be long, hard and expensive. It will take much investment from many different sources for it to happen, and not just the monetary kind. It will take deep commitment of time, energy, effort, ideas, talent, and yes, much more funding. Increasing investment in the region not optional at this point; it is a mandatory step on the road to a brighter future, and will be key to the region’s future success.