Dec. 9, 2013 — PIKEVILLE As organizers kicked off a mountain summit here to discuss ways to diversify the eastern Kentucky economy, the dominant sentiment seemed to be a mixture of skepticism and hope.
More than 1,500 braved wet roads and fog to get to the East Kentucky Expo Center for the early morning sessions of SOAR (Shaping Our Appalachian Future), a region-wide planning exercise convened by Republican U.S. Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers and Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear.
But while Beshear, Rogers, state House Speaker Greg Stumbo and state Sen. President Robert Stivers all promised to “put politics aside” and to listen to all in the region, most in the crowd had a wait-and-see attitude tempered with optimism.
“We’re all going to have to work together,” said Lawrence County Judge/Executive John Osborne, whose county has been hit hard by the closing of the Kentucky Power Company’s Big Sandy electrical generator.
“If we don’t stop fighting each other, we won’t get anything done,” Osborne said, meaning the two political parties. He was hesitant, however, about working with environmentalist groups, who he said “don’t seem to work with us very much.”
State Sen. Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, said he’s hopeful but is also realistic because of limited public finances for such needed infrastructure as a four-lane highway and developed, flat land on which to locate industry.
“You can’t bring heavy industry to a region without interstate transportation and developable land,” Jones said.
The other component lacking in the region, Jones said, is a public, four-year university.
Stumbo has tried for the past two legislative sessions to bring the University of Pikeville, a private school, into the state system of public universities. But, in an era of budget cuts, including to higher education and the existing public universities, he’s been unable to muster enough support to pass such legislation.