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Perspective: Open the door to diversity

By Mark Green

The recent SOAR summit in Pikeville increased determination to invigorate the long lagging economy of Eastern Kentucky. Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers deserve credit for putting their shoulders to the Sisyphian task of diversifying the economy of a region that has talked of doing so for decades.

Many have studied the problem, written reports and watched little happen. Before the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) event, Pike County Judge-Executive Wayne Rutherford and his staff needed two long tables to display all the previous studies. It was a telling symbol of the need not for assessment but action.

Beshear and Rogers have actually put their political weight – and, importantly, serious financial commitment – behind a pair of actions with significant promise.

The governor is pushing the long-sought extension and widening of Mountain Parkway and other roads all the way to Pikeville, a $753 million proposal that would take seven years. Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo of Prestonsburg is accurate in saying the project “will create an economic lifeline to an area that needs it.” Senate President Robert Stivers praises the plan.

The Eastern Kentucky counties are highlighted in yellow.

With funding help from Rogers, chairman of the powerful U.S. House Appropriations Committee, Beshear also proposes a $100 million project to provide high-speed broadband Internet connectivity to Eastern Kentucky. Rogers likens the importance of broadband Internet today to the arrival of the interstate highway system in the 1960s and ’70s. True. Lack of connectivity is absolutely an impediment to commerce in the world today.

Taxpayers in Kentucky and around the nation should support the two projects. Without such change, tax dollars will flow to the region anyway in the form of support programs and subsidy payments to families without jobs and who will remain without significant prospects.

Highways of asphalt and concrete and fiber optics will create avenues by which commerce can flow into and out of a region that needs it. They will help end isolation that stymies change, innovation and economic progress.

One thing that is proven to stimulate economies is diversity of ideas. Creativity and new thinking is the cornerstone of productivity and progress – in business especially. This is the economic inspiration behind IdeaFestival in Louisville, the celebration of curiosity and innovative thinking that produces breakthrough success. The point of this annual event is to boost Kentucky’s business culture.

An inevitable result of improving Eastern Kentucky’s physical and digital access to adjoining and far-flung regions should be innovation, entrepreneurship, jobs and economic diversity. Incomes and tax bases will rise, and the need for outside support will decline.

But can the region do more? Consider the impact if Eastern Kentucky opened its arms invitingly to … immigration. Foreign citizens who dream of the American Dream would jump at the opportunity to live in the beautiful Appalachian region. They could address several issues positively.

Too much of Appalachia’s native talent leaves – for Lexington, for Knoxville, Cincinnati, Louisville and points beyond. The 2010 census found several Eastern Kentucky counties with housing vacancy rates topping 20 percent. An influx from afar could fill not only empty homes but workforce skills gaps.

The 2011 Greater Louisville Idea Development Expedition (GLIDE) trip to Toronto found one element of the economic success of Canada’s largest city is a steady infusion of foreign immigrants – more than 50,000 annually.

Meanwhile, to better engage with the international talent it has and support Louisville regional business in attracting more, an initiative began in 2009 that is known as GLIP – Greater Louisville International Professionals. All U.S. cities and regions are competing for workforce talent, the most essential and valuable raw material for economic success.

The more diverse its population, the more vigorous an area is culturally, creatively and economically. You want proof? The United States is the most innovative and successful nation the world has ever known precisely because it is the most diverse. It is the world’s melting pot. The mix of peoples and practices and ways of thought generates economic innovation.

Eastern Kentucky wants innovation and ambitious young professionals want to be Americans. Turn the lights on.

Mark Green is editorial director of The Lane Report. He can be reached at [email protected]