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Shaping Our Appalachian Region update

By Al Cross

Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

DANNVILLE, Ky. – The bipartisan effort to lift Appalachian Kentucky’s economy is moving from its organizational phase into its first operational phase as it looks ahead to the departure of a co-founder.

Shaping Our Appalachian Region was created last year by Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who will leave office in December, and Republican 5th District U.S. Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers of Somerset. Both major-party nominees for governor say they will continue to support SOAR, but any such effort has pitfalls to avoid and promises to keep.

There were hints of that at the July 21 meeting of the SOAR Executive Committee, near Annville at the offices of Jackson Energy Cooperative, as the committee:

• welcomed a former state health commissioner to the long-vacant position of SOAR’s leader for health, the specific topic that may have generated the most controversy in the organizational phase;

• approved SOAR’s first big contract, with a Louisville public-relations firm that will “make this a movement of the people,” as one associate of the firm put it; and

• heard a member push for hiring of people from the region as the state begins construction on a big project for high-speed Internet service.

The new health chair and member of the SOAR Advisory Council is Dr. William Hacker, a retired pediatrician who was named commissioner of the state Department of Public Health under Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher and kept the job under Beshear.

He succeeds Dr. Nikki Stone of Hazard, who left the post after her Health Working Group made two major recommendations driven by people who had attended its public forums: a coordinated health program in schools, and a study of the health effects of large-scale surface mining, which studies have suggested could be significant.

When the recommendations of the health group and working groups addressing other issues were published last fall, the mining-study recommendation wasn’t included in the list, which was limited to shorter-term recommendations, but was mentioned in the health group’s report. Some other working groups continued to meet over the winter, but the health group did not.

SOAR Executive Director Jared Arnett said after the SOAR Strategy Summit in May that a chief health adviser and working-group chair would be named within two weeks, but Rogers and Beshear missed that deadline by several weeks.

Introducing Hacker at the meeting, Arnett said most of SOAR’s corporate partners “revolve around health care.” Those include the University of Kentucky, the University of Louisville and KentuckyOne Health, which are presenting partners at $300,000 each; and Pikeville Medical Center, Baptist Health, Passport Health Plan and Aetna Inc., which is buying Humana Inc.

Hacker is a Clay County native who practiced in Corbin and moved to Lexington as vice president of health services for Appalachian Regional Healthcare. “My heart still stays in this part of the world,” he told the executive committee.

He said that when committee member Jim Host asked him to take the health post, “I really didn’t want to volunteer for another job,” but “this is one I could not say no to.” He said he has always been active in public health and economic development in the region.

The soft-spoken Hacker gave few hints about how he will approach the task, other than to suggest he would move carefully and with partners: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. I’m looking forward to going far.”

Arnett said SOAR will have a grant-funded employee and a federal Centers for Disease Control staffer to help Hacker in his work.

He also introduced another new Advisory Council member, Rental Pro owner Doug Jones of Hazard, who will chair the business incubation and entrepreneurship working group.

Communications contract

The executive committee approved the corporate partners’ recommendation of C2 Strategic Communications to do SOAR’s public relations and marketing for $125 an hour with a limit of $200,000, including expenses, for two years.

Chad Carlton, president of the firm, said it is made up of former journalists and focuses on “public affairs, community development and making Kentucky a better place to live.” He noted it has a contract with the state for the Mountain Parkway project.

Carlton introduced C2 Vice President Kerri Richardson, who until recently was Beshear’s communications director; and “strategic partner” Carla Blanton, an independent PR and marketing consultant who was press secretary for Fletcher and is married to UK spokesman Jay Blanton.

“We want to sharpen and focus the message” and “make this a movement of the people,” Blanton told the committee. “We believe SOAR is ready to go from a noun to a verb.”

Richardson said the firm will take the message beyond the region to the media centers of Louisville, Washington and New York; set up a speakers’ bureau; and write speeches and talking points.

Broadband project

Beshear and Rogers announced that ground will be broken Aug. 31 for the state-run broadband project to bring high-speed, high-capacity Internet service within the reach of most communities in rural Kentucky. The Washington Post recently ranked Kentucky last in broadband speed.

The project is managed by Macquarie Capital, an Australian firm with several partners. Its contract with the state calls for 60 percent of the employees on the project to come from Kentucky. Pikeville banker Jean Hale told her fellow committee members that she would like to apply the same minimum in the 54 counties of Appalachian Kentucky that make up the SOAR region.

“That will go a long way in building SOAR’s image of actually getting things done for them,” Hale said.

Host agreed. “If we bring people in to work without giving them an opportunity for jobs,” he said of local people, “that would be a negative.” He said subcontractors should follow the 60 percent rule, and suggested telling Macquarie that the committee would appreciate its best efforts to employ SOAR-area people for SOAR-area work. The committee approved a motion by Hale to that effect.

Beshear, in response to a question, said the state could track the residences of people employed on the project.

State broadband director Brian Kiser said webinars for coal-county community leaders will be held from August through November to build understanding and support for the project. It will not build high-speed lines to customers, but construct the so-called “middle mile” to which local Internet service providers can connect.

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