Congressman Harold Rogers and Governor Steve Beshear joined leaders from Southern and Eastern Kentucky to discuss critical issues important to the region at the 27th annual East Kentucky Leadership Conference.
The conference, which brings together leaders from across the region to talk about issues specific to Southern and Eastern Kentucky, drew more than 400 people to the two-day event on April 24-25 at The Center for Rural Development in Somerset. This year’s conference theme was “Transforming Crisis into Opportunity.” Topics focused on federal and state initiatives, entrepreneurship for small businesses, next generation technology, youth engagement, education, employment opportunities, and tourism. It was the largest attendance in the history of the conference.
“The Center for Rural Development is honored to have been the host and partner for one of the most important events to occur in the region,” said Elizabeth Burton, spokeswoman for The Center for Rural Development. “This conference shows the people of Appalachia that we’re not going to quit. That we are committed to finding solutions to problems that are keeping our region and our people from moving forward. I think that the attendance at the conference this year shows the entrepreneurial spirit and perseverance of the people of Appalachia. There is no more special place than right here at home in Eastern Kentucky.”
The East Kentucky Leadership Conference provides an opportunity for dialogue, creative thinking and solution development around chronic problems that have affected the Appalachian region. In his address to the conference participants, Congressman Hal Rogers said, “this conference allows people to come together to develop a plan so that we can take concrete steps to more the region forward. Whether it is in technology, employment, or tourism, we need to plan first. Then, we can roll up our sleeves and work.”
This year, the East Kentucky Leadership Conference built upon the work of the Shaping our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative already underway. In conjunction with the conference, the SOAR Working Groups convened for the first time on April 24 at The Center.The SOAR Working Groups are responsible for leading large-scale discussions throughout Eastern Kentucky on topics related to the region’s economic future and quality of life.
At his address during Thursday night’s awards dinner, Beshear said, “Government doesn’t have all the answers, but the people right here in Eastern Kentucky do. Judging from the attendance at the SOAR working groups and the energy today, local engagement will not be a problem.”
The 10 Working Groups include: Agriculture, Community and Regional Foods; Broadband; Business Recruitment; Business Incubation; Education and Retraining; Health; Infrastructure; Leadership Development and Youth Engagement; Regional Collaboration and Identity; and Tourism, including Natural Resources, Arts and Heritage.
“We are really excited that it was possible to have the SOAR Working Groups meet here at the conference this year,” said Peter Hille, board chair of the East Kentucky Leadership Foundation. “The synergy that has now occurred from the work we have done all these years has resulted in a forum for discussing regional issues, and the SOAR initiative creates a new platform for moving positive action forward on these issues.”
“The real strength of this region is its mountains, its heritage, and its people,” added Chuck Fluharty, interim executive director of SOAR. “I believe the assets this region has that are not yet fully expressed may be as strong as any in America.”
Rogers and Beshear are co-chairs of a 15-member SOAR Executive Committee that will oversee the design, execution, and funding of SOAR activities. The committee will provide interim governance for the initiative until a permanent structure is established.
Lonnie Lawson, President and CEO of The Center for Rural Development, will lead the committee on Broadband, which will explore access to the internet as well as other technologies that will help advance the region. This week’s conference, as well as the SOAR working groups, emphasized the need for improved technology in Eastern, KY.
“Where you live, it doesn’t matter,” said Rogers. “All you need is access to technology and a good work ethic. Ask any business that has worked in Eastern Kentucky, and they will tell you that the work ethic of people in Eastern Kentucky is the best of any in the nation.”
Guest speaker David C. Wilhelm, chief strategy officer for Hecate Energy, a leading American-based developer of renewable energy projects, challenged the SOAR Working Groups and conference participants to build an ownership society.
“I want capitalism breaking out in every nook and cranny of this great region,” said Wilhelm. “Not the sort of capitalism that benefits only the few, but the sort of capitalism that involves the many. I want the capitalism of businesses that make things, businesses that sell real things to real customers, and make revenue and profit doing it. I want that sort of capitalism. We need to go on the offensive.”
The highlight of the event was an awards showcase hosted on Thursday night where the East Kentucky Leadership Foundation recognized individuals for their valuable contributions to the region.
This year’s East Kentucky Leadership Foundation award winners are:
Bob Mitchell, former district administrator and long-time political advisor for Congressman Hal Rogers – Tony Turner Award
Operation UNITE – Organization
Jerry Rickett, president and CEO, Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation – Public Individual
J.C. Egnew, president and chairman, Outdoor Venture Corporation – Private Individual
Forcht Broadcasting – Media
Sundy Best’s Nick Jamerson and Kris Bentley – Cultural Arts
The conference concluded with a challenge to all participants to go back to their communities, build upon their strengths, and begin planning for success. In his remarks, Wilhelm said, “the world is knocking at our door.” “All we have to do is build upon an undeniably history of business building and innovation that already makes up the core of Appalachia.”
The conference was presented by the East Kentucky Leadership Foundation and in partnership with conference sponsors The Center for Rural Development, Forcht Group of Kentucky, Somerset Community College, Pulaski County Government, the City of Somerset, University of Pikeville, Coventry Cares of Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky University, Walmart, and Campbellsville University.
Established in 1987, the East Kentucky Leadership Foundation brings together leaders and community members from all walks of life and throughout Eastern Kentucky for a two-day conference in April to discuss and share ideas for solutions to the problems which have kept the region from reaching its fullest potential.
Established in 1996 through the vision of U.S. Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers, (KY-05), and other leaders, The Center for Rural Development is a nonprofit organization fueled by a mission to provide leadership that stimulates innovative and sustainable economic development solutions and a better way of life in Southern and Eastern Kentucky. In its 45-county primary service region, The Center provides innovative programs in leadership, public safety, technology, and arts and culture. The Center is committed to constantly expanding its capabilities in order to deliver a range of key services throughout Kentucky and the nation.