Stung by the loss of nearly 6,000 coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky since mid-2011, Democrat Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers on Monday announced a summit aimed at coming up with ideas to improve the region's crippled economy.
Beshear and Rogers also announced a planning committee of more than 40 people — many from the private and education sectors — to come up with topics and goals for the summit, which will be Dec. 9 at the Eastern Kentucky Exposition Center in Pikeville.
People involved in the effort acknowledged Monday that there have been many plans put forth in the past to develop or diversify the economy of Appalachian Kentucky, with little progress made.
Ideas will have to come from within the region if the new effort is to work, Beshear said.
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"To be successful, the people of Appalachia must step up and take ownership and responsibility for their own future," Beshear said at a news conference at Hazard Community and Technical College.
Rogers has been a strong critic of tougher environmental rules on mining and burning coal put in place by the Obama Administration, and said he would continue fighting for the coal industry.
But Monday, he said the region needs to embrace an economy defined by technology and innovation.
"Our best resources are a different energy source" than coal, Rogers said. "It's our people."
The event Monday was a bipartisan show of support for the effort to come up with a plan for the region. Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, also spoke.
The speakers did not make mention of any specific ideas to diversify Eastern Kentucky's economy, but Stumbo did suggest a potential way to pay for some programs: a significant revision of how the sate divides coal severance tax funds.
Much of the money now goes to the state. Stumbo — noting that Rogers has said a vision without funding is a hallucination — said he is working on a proposal to gradually return all the money to coal-producing counties.
The plan will call for reducing the state's share by 10 percent a year over 10 years.
Stumbo also advocates setting up regional economic planning commissions in the state's eastern and western coalfields to recommend development plans. Those commissions would not have control of coal-severance money.
The coal industry in Eastern Kentucky has seen a sharp decline for a number of reasons. One key factor is competition from relatively cheap natural gas.
The industry also faces challenges from lower-cost coal elsewhere in the country; higher mining costs and declining productivity; and tougher rules aimed at protecting air and water quality.
The current downturn continues a history of up-and-down production swings in Eastern Kentucky, but federal analysts have predicted production won't return to the level of even a few years ago.
"With the difficulties in the coal industry today, a lot of people are despairing," Roger said. "The battle for our neighbors is putting food on the table and heating the house this winter."
However, Rogers said he is confident that the region will come up with ideas to rejuvenate the economy.