Outlines Chamber, Tourism Responsibility to County Growth
By Shane Gilreath
Sometimes advice is better served from the outside. That’s exactly what SOAR Innovation, a partnership between “Shaping Our Appalachian Region” (SOAR) and the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, was banking on when they brought their counsel to the Chamber of Commerce luncheon last week. The chamber was joined by SOAR Associate Executive Director Joshua Ball and William “Tal” Jones, the company’s innovative director for McCreary County.
Showing a cultural awareness, Ball was clear that he was conscious that no one liked outsiders to tell them what to do, but that his company sought to forge relationships in McCreary County. “A lot of folks have had to leave,” stated the Martin County, Kentucky, native, citing a problem that has faced many areas in the region and confirmed by the latest census, which showed a population decline in rural parts of the state, despite a statewide increase. “You have decided to stay and tough it out,” he said to a crowd of approximately a dozen interested citizens.
SOAR Innovation’s objective is to assist small businesses and entrepreneurs and expand existing markets with leveraging technology, the idea that technology itself can change the business outlook and fill gaps left by the decline in the coal industry, which has seen many of the region’s counties struggle.
According to Ball’s estimates, over 80% of the distressed counties in Appalachia, a region that stretches from Alabama to New York and encompasses 13 states, more than 400 counties, and a population approximated to be 25 million, are in Kentucky. To be classified as distressed, a county must be in the bottom 10% of the poverty rate, per capita, with 93% of SOAR’s Kentucky counties having at least one distressed area, a problem that has plagued the whole region for decades, first bring brought to the national consciousness in the 1940s and again in two decades later, when President Kennedy established the Appalachian Regional Commission.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Ball told his audience, in recognizing the on-going troubles, “but it starts in communities and rooms like this.”
Emphasizing SOAR’s technology initiative, Ball stressed the importance of empowering McCreary County’s youth, in spite of regional poverty levels, and the opportunities available to advance through the connectivity of the modern world. The opportunities, he insists, are there, with currently 4,000 people in Appalachian Kentucky working remotely, stressing that the internet allows for businesses to be both home grown and flourish globally.
“If you get caught up in poverty,” he said, “you cannot force your energy and efforts to address those things.” It’s important, he stressed to the chamber, that it’s about creating jobs, opportunity, and hope, and to ultimately help boost ideas and entrepreneurship in Eastern Kentucky.
Tal Jones, who, since 2019, has worked directly with McCreary County as the Business and Innovation Champion, has previously made inroads by offering his assistance to local businesses, including to the McCreary County Tourist Commission, representatives of which will attend the SOAR summit on March 7-8 in Ashland, Kentucky. County representatives to the summit will include Tourism Director Michelle Perry, McCreary County Heritage Foundation Director Crystal Taylor, McCreary County Deputy Judge-Executive Nathan Nevels and his wife, Tammie Nevels.
“McCreary County has some of the most gorgeous views in the state,” Jones insisted, but that the county needed an aggressive marketing campaign in order to meet its own potential.
It was a sentiment shared by Michelle Perry, the McCreary County Tourism Director. “McCreary County is filled with so much natural beauty and wonderful assets. It is definitely an area worth going the extra mile for and SOAR is doing just that,” Perry told The Voice.
A part of that is capturing travelers who might just pass through the area without contributing to the tourism industry and, as such, the local economy. According to Joshua Ball, tourism brings an annual $60 Billion to Appalachia, a piece of which McCreary County stands the risk of losing.
A part of preventing that is knowing both ourselves and what we offer. Ball asked chamber attendees to think about two things: how are you competing for tourists? What is your story?
“Trails,” he admits, “is part of this. Having Big South is part of this,” but Ball believes working together in a regional effort should also be part of the overall plan for Appalachia, in the foothills of which McCreary County sits.
“You have all this natural beauty, right?” he asked. “But you have to compliment it with things for people to do. Spruce up your downtown,” he suggested. “Have boutiques, have small restaurants. It all compliments one another.”
With those advancements at the forefront of thought, Perry, who also serves as a board member for the McCreary County Chamber of Commerce, agreed and looked forward to the future. “SOAR will be an integral partner to help us fight for grants, showcase our assets, and be a driver of economic development. We need to continue working with organizations who want to see great things come to fruition in Eastern Kentucky and develop wonderful relationships with our talented locals.”
For those interested in what SOAR can offer upstart businesses, Tal Jones can be reached at (606) 546-1911 or by email at email@example.com.
Tal Jones, SOAR Innovation’s Business and Innovation Champion assigned to McCreary County, addresses the local Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, February 16, 2022, in the community room of the the McCreary County Public Library. Jones, who works with new and existing small businesses, offered his services to local business owners.