Governor Steve Beshear and Congressman Harold "Hal" Rogers joined U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today to announce the first report from last month's Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) Summit, as well as to reveal significant new partnership opportunities through the USDA -- which the leaders said mean promising new strategies for the success of eastern Kentucky and the entire Commonwealth.
In an effort to focus on the future success of southern and eastern Kentucky, Gov. Beshear and Rep. Rogers organized the SOAR Summit to gather ideas and recommendations about how to move Kentucky's Appalachian region forward. The SOAR Summit, held in Pikeville on Dec. 9, attracted more than 1,700 Kentuckians. Today's report provides a compendium of all the comments and suggestions submitted to the initiative, and outlines common themes for focused efforts in the coming weeks, months, and years.
Agriculture Secretary Vilsack announced the expansion of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's StrikeForce Initiative into four additional states, including Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee and West Virginia. Nearly two-thirds of Kentucky's counties -- 73 total -- will be part of the StrikeForce, which means the USDA will partner with local community organizations, businesses, foundations, universities and other groups to support local projects and pursue needed investments into rural areas.
"All of today's announcements reveal a common theme -- that thanks to our shared effort, vision, and cooperation, we are already seeing meaningful progress toward a new future for Appalachia as well as many of our rural counties," said Gov. Beshear. "The work of the SOAR initiative has not only captured the attention of our citizens, but has also attracted new partners outside our borders to share our work of revitalizing and reimagining this key region. The work is far from over, but we are off to a tremendous start."
"This is what the SOAR initiative is all about -- working together, dreaming big and creating new opportunities," said Congressman Rogers. "Only five weeks after the SOAR Summit, we're receiving real commitments, real programs, and real dollars dedicated to Eastern Kentucky, and the best is yet to come."
"The StrikeForce strategy of partnering public resources with local expertise is helping to grow rural economies and create jobs in persistent poverty communities," said Vilsack. "This is a strategy that is working in rural America and I am pleased that we continue to build on these efforts to bring assistance to areas in Kentucky that need it the most."
SOAR Summit Report
The SOAR Summit report compiles the messages and comments submitted throughout the event, as well as conversations held during the event's nine breakout sessions, which covered topics such as tourism, entrepreneurship, lifelong learning and regional collaboration. In all, more than 1,000 comments are included in the report, as well as more than 600 written ideas and organizational commitments to support the initiative. No idea or commitment received has been removed from the report. The SOAR Summit welcomed hundreds of attendees from across southern and eastern Kentucky with varied occupational backgrounds and interests-- including individuals representing education, business, nonprofits, arts, finance, tourism, local government and more.
"This chronicle of ideas will be our guide for the next steps in the SOAR initiative," said Congressman Rogers. "The report also fuels inspiration, with the overwhelming response being action instead of complaints. Eastern Kentuckians are clearly ready to dive in, serve in working groups, and offer individual expertise to help shape the future of our hometowns."
"One strong sentiment among SOAR participants is that this initiative must be much more than a planning exercise -- that it would lead not to another study collecting dust on a shelf but to action," said Gov. Beshear. "It's clear from the report and from the several positive events since the SOAR Summit that this effort will not wither away."
The report was compiled by the Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI), which facilitated the SOAR Summit. While the report is intended to simply reflect the events and dialogue of that day, the observations about the event will guide leaders in planning future events and programs launched by SOAR.
"What occurred at the SOAR event was an exemplary regional dialogue," said RUPRI President and CEO Chuck Fluharty. "Participants were thoughtful, engaged, respectful of one another's views, creative, deliberative, and above all else, hopeful. The region's ability to build collaborative frameworks to capture the many innovative ideas and partnerships suggested was becoming imaginable."
The report summary provides some guidelines to be used in determining the initiative's next steps. For example, many SOAR attendees voiced the need for broadening and deepening the dialogue, perhaps in community and county discussions. Others reiterated the need to identify funding, emphasized the necessity of SOAR leadership to transcend county and regional boundaries, or suggested that crafting a formal leadership structure should be carefully considered over a period of time.
The SOAR report is available at http://www.governor.ky.gov/SOAR and through all state libraries.
Both Gov. Beshear and Congressman Rogers plan to review the report carefully before making further announcements about next steps for the SOAR initiative. The leaders also pointed to a series of recent partnerships and announcements as indications of SOAR's strong momentum, including:
the recent federal designation of a Promise Zone for an eight-county region in eastern Kentucky to accelerate partnerships and access to federal programs, including job creation efforts;
yesterday's announcement of a $2.6 million loan pool that will allow entrepreneurs and startup companies in the region to qualify for small business loans through the U.S. Department of the Treasury;
a new $30 million district Race to the Top award for improving education in 18 rural school districts in eastern Kentucky; and
the Governor's announcement this week of plans to expand and four-lane the Mountain Parkway, which will essentially create the equivalent of a four-lane interstate through this key region.
About USDA StrikeForce
In 2010, USDA launched the StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity -- an effort to leverage partnerships in poverty-stricken rural areas to ensure that every community has equal access to USDA programs. Since that time, through StrikeForce, USDA has partnered with over 400 community organizations, businesses, foundations, universities and other groups to support 80,300 projects and ushered more than $9.7 billion in investments into rural America.
The USDA will aim to increase investment in Kentucky's 73 targeted rural counties through intensive outreach and stronger partnership.
"Through StrikeForce, we are able to reach people in new ways and bring resources to them directly," said Vilsack. "We are learning better ways to help communities leverage their assets and bring opportunity to their residents."
Today's expansion brings StrikeForce attention to over 700 rural counties, parishes, boroughs, tribal reservations, and Colonias in 20 states, including Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia.
StrikeForce is part of the Administration's commitment to addressing persistent poverty across America. Last week, President Obama announced the first five of 20 Promise Zones, including one in southeastern Kentucky, that target federal resources to cities, rural areas and Tribal communities suffering the worst poverty.
Kentucky counties in the StrikeForce zone include: