I once heard Dr. Mark Lyons, the president and CEO of Alltech, say this: “Wherever we are in life, life will test us. How we react determines everything.”
Those words ring so true throughout the 54 counties of Appalachia Kentucky.
Recently, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) released its economic status designations for states and counties throughout the 13-state region that encompasses the Appalachian Mountains.
It’s obvious we have some work to do. Perhaps, a lifetime of work to do.
Here are the facts:
• The Appalachia region has 80 counties categorized as distressed. A designation of distressed means that the county ranks in the bottom 10% nationally in three-year average unemployment rates, poverty, and per-capita market income (income calculated by dividing total personal income, less transfer payments (e.g., retirement and disability insurance benefit payments, medical payments, income maintenance benefit payments, unemployment insurance benefit payments, veterans benefit payments, and other such payments), by population.
• Appalachia Kentucky is home to nearly half, or 39, of Appalachia’s 80 distressed counties.
The complexities of the challenges facing Appalachia Kentucky and Central Appalachia in general have been studied and debated. There have been countless studies, most well-intended, and many suggestions on how to “fix” us.
The forming of Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) in 2013 was not just the start of other program. It was the beginning of a movement, to not only address our problems, but to work together to identify and seize upon transformative opportunities.
Together, we created a Blueprint for the Future of Appalachia, and we exist to make sure that this plan does not simply sit on a shelf. It guides our work because it is not SOAR’s plan, it is Appalachia Kentucky’s plan. The seven goals outlined were created through the input of people across the region. They start with connectivity (broadband), and the other six goals – industrial recruitment, small business, workforce, healthy communities, local food, and tourism – are what we plan to do with connectivity to create a future in Appalachia Kentucky.
Each year, when the ARC releases this report, many take a broad look at the data, but it is important to dig a little deeper and to put those numbers into context. For example, there has been a 15.2% increase in per-capita market income in Appalachia Kentucky since the Fiscal Year 2014 report, and the three-year average unemployment rate has dropped from 11% to 7.7% during this same period.
While this is not where we want to be, we are moving closer to the desired destination. Our work, and that of more than 200 partners, is not to simply treat the symptoms of generational poverty and lack of opportunity. It is to transform Appalachia Kentucky.
To bring Appalachia Kentucky on-par with the nation, we estimate that we need to put roughly 30,000 people to work. That cannot be done solely upon filling every industrial park and vacant building with new businesses. This must be done in a comprehensive and diversified manner that fully leverages technology.
Technology can disrupt poverty just as it has every other part of our life. It has affected how we shop, how we bank, how we travel, and how we learn.
Our region has become an epicenter of remote work thanks to programs such as Teleworks USA. Operated by the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, Inc. (EKCEP), Teleworks USA has created more than 2,200 job placements since 2015, representing an estimated $49.2 million economic impact. Teleworks USA’s approach to provide customized training and a pipeline of motivated and quality employees has attracted the attention of many global companies. Last year, we partnered with EKCEP and Teleworks USA to host several global companies to explore not only our region, but the people in our region that possess the critical-thinking, analytical, and soft skills that are essential for companies to thrive in a global and digital economy. In Jackson and Owsley counties alone, more than 700 people are working remotely.
Earlier this year, we launched a partnership with the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development’s KY Innovation office to provide services to small businesses, startups, entrepreneurs, and aspiring entrepreneurs. Our approach is to leverage technology to create new markets and expand existing markets for current entrepreneurs, small businesses, and startups built around the desire or capacity to expand existing markets and create new markets through e-commerce or export.
While this may seem like a lofty goal, it is already happening. New Frontier Outfitters has established a global brand in Rowan County. They started selling hats on the streets of Morehead in parking lots. Through social media and digital marketing, they are shipping apparel across the globe.
There is Annie’s Frugal Finery, a 5,000 square-foot consignment shop in Letcher County. It’s known locally for being housed in a large pink building in Whitesburg. Inside that building, a team of people are using social media to sell high-end consignment items to customers world-wide. There’s Dr. Robin Mason, whose Tree of the Field brand fire-fuel logs (including the globally recognized Skeeterlogs) are made in Garrard County. Her products have been sold in select Whole Food Markets, as well as online on Amazon and Wayfair, and are coming soon to Walmart shelves.
The future we are all working towards is not about any single person, organization, or even business sector. It is about our willingness to come together and to work together.
I firmly believe that as we peel away at some of the challenges, we will discover opportunities and solutions. The power of unwavering resilience is a beautiful thing. Our work is a light in the midst of what many may perceive as darkness, but I know, and we know the light will always win.
At the end of the day, we are – in the words of EKCEP Executive Director Jeff Whitehead – a solution to be discovered, not a problem to be solved.
Jared Arnett is Executive Director of SOAR