Appalachia starts long, scary slog beyond mining

Published Tuesday, March 17, 2015 in Greenwire.

Chuck Fluharty parachutes into busted rural economies and tries to figure out how to get them out of the ditch.

His latest challenge: Appalachia.

Fluharty’s Rural Policy Research Institute is focused on eastern Kentucky, whose coal fields have bled thousands of jobs since 2012 and unemployment rates reached double digits in the hardest-hit counties.

The institute got involved at the request of Kentucky politicians in 2013, putting the region on what’s likely to be a long, difficult journey to diversify its economy and address what Fluharty deems the “resource curse” — when a region’s mineral wealth becomes more economic burden than buoy.

But before he took on the challenge, Fluharty said, he had a heart-to-heart with two of the Bluegrass State’s most powerful politicians — Gov. Steve Beshear (D) and House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R).

“When they came to me, they were asking for a quick fix,” Fluharty said in a recent interview. “There is no quick fix.”

Fluharty explained: “This is the result of what occurs in this sector over time everywhere, and you will not fix that quickly.” The politicians, he said, “didn’t want to hear that, particularly.”

But there were few clear choices for battered eastern Kentucky. So the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative was born to coordinate community involvement and come up with ideas.

The nascent revitalization push has some infrastructure-boosting components along with efforts to diversify the economy with, say, tourism and more entrepreneurship. There’s even an effort to do sustainable timber harvesting.

Fluharty, 67, is the founder, president and CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute, which focuses on assessing the impacts of public policy on rural areas. He’s also been a research professor in the Harry S. Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri, Columbia, and an adjunct faculty member in the university’s Department of Rural Sociology.

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