When you describe Kentucky’s Appalachian region and the people who live there to a person with absolutely no preconceived notions about the region or its people, it is easy to build excitement about the area. Unfortunately, this excitement is significantly harder to muster up with someone who already has preconceived notions about Kentucky and Appalachia as the vast majority of the people in the United States do. Of course, the region has areas of concern that need to be addressed, but so does every region of the United States, few of which are as underserved as Appalachia. So why does the negative stigma control the narrative about Appalachia?
Colby Hall, the new Executive Director of SOAR, believes that the narrative is negative because there is no unified voice that is able to project the great opportunities and people here louder than those projecting the negative narrative. Even as the region has been gaining traction as a possible leader of the emerging US AgriTech industry, a shadow still looms. Colby believes that this is a product of people who have moved here – instead of those from here – unintentionally and naturally highlighting the negative stigmas to enhance their personal narratives of moving to the region.
SOAR, or Shaping Our Appalachian Region, is a non-profit, non-partisan organization taking control of the narrative by creating and supporting a collaborative network of businesses, organizations, and individuals to champion the over 750,000 people in the 54 counties of Eastern Kentucky. SOAR works to expand job creation, enhance innovation and identity, improve quality of life, and support all those working to achieve these goals. By connecting the dots and controlling the perspective, the hope is that Eastern Kentucky and the rest of the nation will be able to realize the opportunities that are currently, and soon to be, offered.
The main vehicle SOAR is utilizing to change the perspective is promoting tourism in the Appalachian region. Increasing tourism brings business and economic opportunity, but more importantly, the region becomes viewed as more attractive and more appealing. Appalachia is undeniably gorgeous and offers unique outdoor opportunities that deserve exploring, but few people know that you could spend more than one day visiting here. Especially during the social distancing and business closures caused by COVID, there is plenty to explore. SOAR is using its network and platform to highlight tourist attractions and activities, so people not only know they can but will want to, vacation in Appalachia.
They are not only helping make people believe there is a future in Eastern Kentucky; they are working to create that future. Colby described SOAR as a clearinghouse for all-things economic development. While not looking to take credit for the progress to be made, they realize the region is simply too spread out not to have a centralized source connecting innovators, entrepreneurs, and community leaders. When businesses in Somerset are aware of businesses in Williamsburg, they may be able to find opportunities to work together.
Economic development is much more than just providing a platform for businesses to work together. It includes bringing high-speed internet and fresh, healthy food to the region. SOAR is working to bring high-speed internet through fiber optic cable to these regions by proving to the private company internet providers that there is a financial incentive to do so. Colby is excited about Starlink, Elon Musk’s and Tesla’s high-speed internet satellite system, but he knows Starlink could be years away from providing blanket coverage and that fiber optic is the only way to keep the region from falling further behind. SOAR is also creating a logistics chain that connects local food producers and farmers with consumers to bring down the cost of fresh, healthy food. By bringing healthy food and high-speed internet, the region can combat the education and health issues that plague it.
SOAR is not creating all of the amazing opportunities of Appalachia Kentucky; they are projecting them. By doing so, they will bring the economic development the region needs and deserves so desperately. They are shedding the extra weight and adding the fuel as Appalachia prepares to take off as an up and coming region in America.