The holiday season is always a time to reflect, and as I reflect on the year at was and look ahead to the year to come, I firmly believe that Appalachia Kentucky is embarking on its finest hour.
That’s not lip service, or a lofty goal. To some, even those in other parts of our Commonwealth, we are perceived as a detriment. We are labeled as what is wrong.
I respectfully and unapologetically disagree.
We are not what is wrong. We are a shining example of what is right.
We are an example of what can happen when people are empowered to share ideas, collaborate, and embrace innovation. We are an example of what is right when the people of a region contribute to a plan, work the plan, and make sure the plan does not sit on a shelf.
Our plan is the Blueprint for the Future of Appalachia. Our seven goals are broadband connectivity and six ways we are going to use it to transform our region.
SOAR and our more than 250 partners are working across sectors, communities, counties, and regions to dream bigger and reach higher.
I want to be abundantly clear: The debate is over… We are creating a future in Appalachia.
My optimism isn’t grounded in grander or catch phrases, it is grounded in results, like:
Our Grassroots Partners at Teleworks USA created more than 630 jobs in 2019, representing more than $13,773,760 in annual wages throughout Appalachia Kentucky. These results will only grow as we leverage KentuckyWired and work with providers and communities to make sure all our region has access to affordable and high-speed internet.
Digital Careers Now created 205 jobs in 2019 and expanded its partnership with General Dynamics Information Technology to hire individuals at Digital Career Now Hubs in Hazard, Cumberland and Paintsville on the campuses of Hazard, Southeast Kentucky, and Big Sandy community and technical colleges.
Through a partnership with the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development’s KY Innovation office, we have identified 446 businesses that have the capacity to grow by leveraging technology to grow existing customers or reach new customers. Our Business and Innovation team have closed on 131 incentives for these businesses.
Eight of the top ten counties and 14 of the top 20 counties to have the greatest decline in drug overdose mortality rates are in Appalachia Kentucky. This is according to a study commissioned by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) to the NORC Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis and the UK Center of Excellence in Rural Health.
Our Blueprint Partners at Operation UNITE continue to be on the frontlines working on treatment and educational efforts to combat Substance Use Disorder. They provided 186 individuals vouchers for treatment totaling $930,000. On the education front, UNITE’s school-based clubs have more than 10,000 members and are working in their communities to educate and eradicate substance use disorder across the region.
Our Cornerstone Partners at Addiction Recovery Care, through a collaboration with SOAR, EKCEP, and Sullivan University, graduated 75 Peer Support Specialists in 2019. Forty-nine of those graduates are employed. Addiction Recovery Care also opened Second Chance Auto, a 10-employee, full-service auto repair and body shop. This year, they serviced more than 3,500 vehicles.
Our Grassroots Partners at AppHarvest began construction of its more than 2.5 million square-foot high-tech greenhouse in Morehead. The company also reeled in $100 million in investments for the project, which is the size of 48 football fields and is the largest LED light installation in the world. Construction is set to be completed in 2020 and once fully operational, AppHarvest will have 280 full-time employees on site.
Our Unity Partners at Kentucky Proud, through the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, expanded the Appalachia Proud brand to encompass all 54 counties in 2019. Seventeen counties were added, bringing in more than 1,000 new members to the Appalachia Proud program.
Our Blueprint Partners at East Kentucky PRIDE, through the support of an ARC POWER grant, has created a regional marketing and branding strategy called the Kentucky Wildlands for 41 counties in Appalachia Kentucky.
The Appalachian Wildlife Center changed its name to Boone’s Ridge in 2019. The project, which encompasses 12,000 acres, is currently being constructed. The center will house various trails, several museums, a theater, a restaurant, an artisans’ exhibit hall, a gift shop, bird observatories, and a zoo. The project was awarded a $23.5 million loan guarantee by the USDA in 2019, and it is set to open in 2021.
In the words of my friend Jeff Whitehead: Appalachia Kentucky is not a problem to be solved, but a solution to be discovered.
I’m as optimistic and confident that our region will continue to flourish, because the transformation we desire and deserve, rests with our ability to come together and work together.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Jared Arnett is Executive Director of Shaping Our Appalachian Region, Inc. (SOAR)