SOAR taking flight “SOAR is ready to go from a noun to a verb.” — Carla Blanton

By Al Cross
Special to the Mountain Advocate

The bipartisan effort to lift Appalachian Kentucky’s economy is moving from its organizational phase into its first operational phase as it looks ahead to the departure of a co-founder.

Shaping Our Appalachian Region was created last year by Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who will leave office in December, and Republican 5th District U.S. Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers of Somerset. Both major-party nominees for governor say they will continue to support SOAR, but any such effort has pitfalls to avoid and promises to keep.

Carla Blanton is an independent PR and marketing consultant who was press secretary for Fletcher and is married to UK spokesman Jay Blanton.

“We want to sharpen and focus the message” and “make this a movement of the people,” Blanton told the SOAR Advisory Council. “We believe SOAR is ready to go from a noun to a verb.”

The good news is that Beshear and Rogers recently announced that ground will be broken Aug. 31 for the state-run broadband project to bring high-speed, high-capacity Internet service within the reach of most communities in rural Kentucky. The Washington Post recently ranked Kentucky last in broadband speed.

The project is managed by Macquarie Capital, an Australian firm with several partners. Its contract with the state calls for 60 percent of the employees on the project to come from Kentucky. Pikeville banker Jean Hale told her fellow committee members that she would like to apply the same minimum in the 54 counties of Appalachian Kentucky that make up the SOAR region.

“That will go a long way in building SOAR’s image of actually getting things done for them,” Hale said.

SOAR Executive Committee member Jim Host agreed. “If we bring people in to work without giving them an opportunity for jobs,” he said of local people, “that would be a negative.” He said subcontractors should follow the 60 percent rule, and suggested telling Macquarie that the committee would appreciate its best efforts to employ SOAR-area people for SOAR-area work. The committee approved a motion by Hale to that effect.

Beshear, in response to a question, said the state could track the residences of people employed on the project.

State broadband director Brian Kiser said webinars for coal-county community leaders will be held from August through November to build understanding and support for the project. It will not build high-speed lines to customers, but construct the so-called “middle mile” to which local Internet service providers can connect.

— Al Cross is the Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky.