Legend has it that in 1972 the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was asked to give his assessment of the French Revolution. Although the uprising began in 1789, Zhou cryptically answered “it’s too early to tell.” Folks looking for the full impact of the Shaping our Appalachia initiative would be well advised to take Zhou’s long-term view of history.
Last week, 10 working-groups, headed by leaders from across Eastern Kentucky, submitted reports to the SOAR executive board and the initiative’s champions, Gov. Steve Beshear and Congressman Hal Rogers. As the chair of one of these groups (I led the Leadership Development and Youth Engagement committee), I am doubtlessly biased, but I think that given time, the SOAR effort has the potential to transform our region.
From the outset, the goal of SOAR has been to diversify our region’s economy. Changing a regional economy is like turning a battleship. No matter how much the steering wheel on board the ship turns, to outsiders, the ship still seems to be headed in the same direction, even though the ship is actually changing course.
A word search of the SOAR report—which spans nearly 400 pages—gives clues to where this initiative is headed. The word “entrepreneur” is mentioned 140 times. “Innovation” is mentioned 70 times. “Broadband” received 72 references, while “Technology” received 39 mentions.
Planning for entrepreneurship, high-speed Internet, technology and innovation are all part of a vital first step to transforming our region. For too long we’ve waited for outside sources to save us. Now, we’re looking at new and internal strategies.
Here are some of the specific strategies suggested in the report:
• Creating industry clusters, a process whereby industry groupings in a concentrated geographic area are provided assistance so the industry as a whole can succeed and grow.
• Fostering interest in an ARC program called Bon Appetit Appalachia. This is a national tourism program designed to promote local food and farms.
• Conducting a workforce inventory to ensure we have a strong workforce needed to facilitate industrial growth and recruitment. Creating computer coding programs and an angel investment fund aimed at helping the region’s youth explore new business opportunities.
• Deploying and adapting extremely high speed internet. Our goal is to have one of the fastest statewide internet systems in the world.
• Improving coordination and focus of youth entrepreneurial training programs.
• Using technology, such as mobile apps, to promote tourism and heritage-based businesses in the region.
Each of these initiatives is already underway or at least being discussed. None of these is strictly an initiative of SOAR, but the movement will play a significant role in putting these goals on the fast track. For example, the renewed effort to expand the Mountain Parkway and the recent launch of an Alltech operation in Pike County both highlight the fact that even the most ambitious plans require high-level support and strategic-leadership.
SOAR can deliver both these facets in spades. Strategic leadership is critical if proposals such as the ones mentioned in the report are to be more than another flash in the pan.
Returning to the ship metaphor, an old saying holds, “Neither should a ship rely on one small anchor, nor should life rest on a single hope.” That’s good advice for SOAR and all of Eastern Kentucky. Creating economic success is truly a team effort that will require many different, yet unified approaches.
So man the deck and get ready to navigate the deep waters. The voyage will be long but worth it in the end.
Johnathan Gay is an attorney and the director of the Kentucky Innovation Network office at Morehead State University. To learn more about the Kentucky Innovation Network or to get involved in entrepreneurial projects, click here.
To read more of Johnathan Gay, click here.