Structure and process for SOAR initiative announced – it’s a good next step

AR-303259972Governor Steve Beshear and Representative Hal Rogers announced the structure and process for the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative yesterday in Hazard. We’ve been waiting for this announcement since Dec. 9, 2013, when an almost 2,000-person crowd showed up at the SOAR summit in Pikeville to share their ideas and suggestions about eastern Kentucky’s economic future. (Hazard Herald photo by Amelia Holliday)

The announcement – covered here by the Lexington Herald-Leader and here by the Hazard Herald – said there will be a permanent SOAR office in Pikeville headed by Pikeville city manager Donovan Blackburn, and a 15-person executive committee comprised mostly of a who’s who among eastern Kentucky academia, politics, banking, law firms and business leaders, will be created. Working groups, chaired by a similar set of folks, will be devoted to 10 different topics, including agriculture, tourism, broadband Internet and education. These working groups will host community listening sessions throughout the year leading up to a second SOAR summit in November.

A timeline that dictates each next step for the executive committee and working groups was also released. There are no specific dates – just what will be done in each month for the rest of this year – but it does show that a permanent SOAR executive director will be named in September after a nationwide search (Chuck Fluharty, president and CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute, will stand in as interim director until then). A change of command from the working groups and executive committee to the permanent institutional structure will happen in November.

This plan, structure and process does demonstrate a willingness by all parties involved – most specifically Governor Beshear and Representative Rogers – to move forward and take action on SOAR, action that was so ardently spoken about at the December 2013 summit. And the working groups display a continued effort to ensure community input is valued and that it remains a key piece of the SOAR process, as it should.

We were disappointed that only three women were named to the 15-person executive committee, and that just two of the 10 working groups will be chaired by women. The SOAR press release claims in its very first sentence that “a diverse group of eastern Kentucky citizens will form the executive leadership structure” of SOAR. With 80 percent of the executive committee being men, this statement rings a bit disingenuous, especially when lack of gender and ethnic diversity was one of the most talked about issues after the initial SOAR summit.

Perhaps we’re being nit-picky. But, as we’ve written about before on this blog, we know the vast importance of women in eastern Kentucky’s history, and see their role moving forward as central to the transition of the region’s economy. And, as MACED President Justin Maxson said in a statement about this latest round of SOAR announcements: “While seasoned leadership matters, it is necessary that a diverse set of views shapes the region’s path forward.”

But overall, we remain optimistic, especially about the working groups. We hope they will provide viewpoints from, as Maxson says, “a broad base of people who must provide an ambitious vision, a diverse set of economic development ideas and the hard discussion needed to define a new path forward for the region.”