In October, over 1,400 community partners, business owners, investors, and leaders came together to make a plan of action for Eastern Kentucky’s future. While the ideas were born from our collective struggles, several opportunities on the horizon exhibit potential for a bright future.
The next 10 years are in our hands. To achieve our most audacious goals, every community and business leader must play a role.
Here’s what you need to know about our past and present — and how the Blueprint for Appalachia will reshape our region.
Acknowledging the challenges we’ve faced
Let’s reiterate what we all already know.
The abrupt collapse of coal sent ripple effects across our regional economy. We saw an 85% coal production decline between 1990 and 2016, resulting in over $1 billion in total income losses for those formerly employed by the industry. Our communities also suffered over $500 million in downstream losses: retail, food service, trucking, and specialty businesses all sustained major hits, year after year.
In 2022, we’re finally able to define the long-term effects of losing our top-producing industry in clear terms. But instead of dwelling on what we’ve lost, we can use these resources to make sound decisions that will realign the economic circumstances back in our favor.
What we know
Coal employment losses have translated to a widespread decline in job opportunities across industries. Resulting employment decreases have been in the thousands every year since 1990. As a result, labor force participation in Eastern Kentucky’s distressed counties is 33%. The Kentucky state average is 58%, and nationwide, 62%. 420,000 individuals in our region are currently outside the labor force — an estimated 167,000 of whom are between 18-65 years old.
As a result, we’ve been shedding our population in Eastern Kentucky. We’ve lost nearly 55,000 residents since 2000. 75% of the outmigration took place after 2010. Compare that to the broader US population: there are almost 50 million more US residents compared to 2000, with 23 million residents gained since 2010.
Eastern Kentucky residents also experience disproportionately high rates of health issues. Locals have a lifespan that’s 6 years shorter than the average American due to diabetes, lung cancer, and other diseases.
Our region is served by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), which works to empower Appalachian communities with homegrown economic development solutions. Their funding programs enable much of the great work supporting Eastern Kentucky today, including much of what we do at SOAR.
Currently, Eastern Kentucky’s 54 counties account for 13% of those served by the ARC — but almost 50% of their top distressed counties. We have to turn this around.
The best way forward is to organize our strengths and capabilities around a deliberate, well-informed action plan.
How do we find the right solutions for Eastern Kentucky? The vastness of how we can take action can be overwhelming, especially when we need to be more organized.
We firmly believe the best solutions will come from within — Eastern Kentucky’s people. Business and community leaders, soon-graduating students, long-term residents who want to see us recapture what we’ve lost, and new residents and businesses who believe in a bright future must work together.
Our collective focus needs to be on the following areas:
- The quality of our workforce, with upskilling and reskilling opportunities powering the transition into a 21st-century economy.
- The health and well-being of our residents, including access to high-quality telehealth services.
- New industry development, by providing quality employees ready to get to work.
- Small business empowerment to keep our local entrepreneur community growing.
- Broadband for all, providing internet access and devices to every resident who wants them.
Blueprint for Appalachia: Setting bold goals for the next 10 years
The Blueprint for Appalachia unites these objectives under one holistic plan. It offers an action plan to lift our communities out of distress and empower individuals with the skills and resources to help them thrive. The guiding principle is people-first.
Let’s explore some of the core objectives of the Blueprint for Appalachia.
Empower our workforce
The basis of our workforce plan is simple. If Eastern Kentucky can offer a well-trained, eager workforce, the jobs will follow. That’s why we’re prioritizing investments and programs for workforce development over the next 10 years for career paths with local industries and remote work employers.
Over the next decade, we aim to:
- Increase labor force participation by 25%.
- Add 150,000 people to the workforce in distressed counties.
- Support local and regional employers with workforce pipeline programs.
These outcomes will make a strong case for business relocation to Eastern Kentucky, which will add more high-earning career opportunities.
Supporting our workforce will yield positive downstream effects. We plan for these investments to:
- Increase Eastern Kentucky’s population by 5%.
- Add 32,000 residents to distressed counties.
- Earn a 12% increase in 25+ year-olds residents.
We’ll be back on par with state and national averages if we accomplish these goals.
Broadband for everyone who wants it
If we want to improve our workforce participation, we must be ready to meet the requirements of a 21st-century economy. Affordable, high-speed internet will play a pivotal role.
The Blueprint aims to deploy 100% county-wide, high-speed internet access (100 Mbps download/20 Mbps upload) in the next 10 years. We want to increase household access to high-speed broadband by 9%, which would impact 23,000 households and 58,000 individuals in our most distressed counties.
SOAR also aims to increase the percentage of households with access to internet-enabled devices by 10% to help people of all ages and backgrounds get online.
There have never been more resources to help Eastern Kentucky communities launch broadband installation projects. But we have to want it.
While much funding is out there for rural broadband projects, they won’t come to us. We have to reach out and apply for these, using all the tools in our toolbox to create standout applications to help our communities win funding.
Improve health outcomes
Eastern Kentuckians deserve to live long, full lives. We must address the health issues surrounding smoking, diabetes, and substance abuse disorder. We aim to achieve parity with state averages for these conditions.
Solutions will include implementing proven solutions to help people find the motivation and tools they need to be healthy. Much of that is providing a sense of purpose and expanding access to quality medical care.
We can help our most remote residents access healthcare resources and gain stronger social and civic connections by going after available broadband grant funding.
And if we expand our tourism efforts, revitalize our downtowns, and help residents make healthy food choices, Eastern Kentuckians will feel seen and supported. And sometimes, that’s the push one needs to take steps towards better health.
What is the future of Eastern Kentucky worth to you?
Securing the future of Eastern Kentucky is SOAR’s driving principle. If we put our heads together, we can accomplish these bold objectives — and bring prosperity home.
How to get involved
Everybody has to play their part to make Eastern Kentucky the best it’s ever been.
The pandemic has shifted resources towards rural areas like ours. But we can’t sit back and let them come to us. We have to go out and grab these opportunities.
Together, we must break down city and county lines and reach across the political aisle if we want to get the job done.
Reach out to SOAR to discover how you can become a part of the Blueprint for Appalachia and secure a bright future for Eastern Kentucky.Did you attend the 2022 Summit? Check out the full recap and videos of the experience to gain inspiration, advice, and more.