Ian Mooers is director of the Center for Economic Development, Entrepreneurship and Technology at Eastern Kentucky University and a member of the East Kentucky Workforce Innovation Board. He's focused on Southeastern Kentucky, a region facing many serious economic and social challenges but now receiving the attention of such initiatives as Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR, and the Promise Zone program which has identified more than $200 million in funding for the region in the next five to seven years.
Martin:In your travels throughout the region, do you get the impression that Eastern Kentucky can keep people employed as coal jobs disappear?
Mooers:Actually, yes I do and I think our economy can diversify. There are a lot of good, well-intended folks working very hard to make that happen. I'm very impressed by (a), how hardworking they are, (b), how entrepreneurial-minded they are.
Martin:What do you see as you travel around the area? We hear that depopulation is happening. Is that true?
Mooers:Economic development is a long process. Yes, we are going to lose people, that is going to happen. We're not going to be able to move fast enough economically to create enough jobs to keep those folks. I think about the gentleman I met in Pikeville at the East Kentucky Leadership Conference this spring who is a laid-off coal miner. Hopefully, we can help him. But he went from an $80,000 a year job to now washing windows and cleaning up after all of us who were there at the conference. I think our biggest challenge is to help someone like that understand that there is opportunity there and to dream about a different future. But that's a very hard thing to do when you're trying to put food on the table and you've had a massive pay cut. We hear stories quite frequently of former miners who have retrained themselves through Hire Our Miners Everyday and have gotten access to some of the funding that's available for entrepreneurs to start businesses. Hopefully we can inspire other folks to see that there's a future for them in Eastern Kentucky.
Martin:An extensive drug abuse problem has taken a heavy toll on employability in the region. Is there any improvement on the horizon?
Mooers:Oftentimes we get a broad brush painted across Eastern Kentucky — that we're all on drugs and nobody wants to work. I just don't find that to be the case. There are folks out there who do want opportunity and are willing to roll up their sleeves and get to work. That's a humbling proposition, to put yourself forward and say 'I have lost a job and now I need to do something different.' I think we need to do all we can to focus on our young folks and try to keep our best and our brightest and help them recognize that there's a future for them here.
Martin:What is your involvement in SOAR?
Mooers:I was involved in the education and retraining group. We needed to focus on the workforce training needs we're going to have, going forward. And we were looking at how we work with our federal partners that have committed resources and really are trying to help this region grow. We talked about how we would diversify the economy and the challenges and the barriers. Certainly the workforce issues identified as one of them but that's not in my mind insurmountable. We can work on that.
Martin:The Obama administration designated southeastern Kentucky as one of five areas of the country singled out for revitalization. So-called "Promise Zones" have since been created. What exactly does this program provide and how has it been working out for Kentucky so far? (Kypromisezone.com/about-us/faqs)
Mooers:It focuses on an eight-county area: Bell, Clay, Harlan, Knox, Leslie, Letcher, Perry and Whitley. Sandi Curd is the Promise Zone coordinator and will tell you that this is a unique opportunity for Eastern Kentuckians to work alongside federal partners. They're these little programs within the agencies that are more than willing to help. As a promise zone we get technical assistance from those agencies to help develop grant proposals.
Martin:If you're not familiar with that process, grant writing, this assistance can be critical?
Mooers:Oh, absolutely. We're seeing a number of communities organize around initiatives like Trail Town. And Middlesboro hosted a Selling to the World Expo, encouraging local folks to come together and recognize that they can sell the world. They can export, they can sell on Etsy, they can sell on eBay. They can go to a wider market.
Martin:You are at Eastern Kentucky University and have a number of initiatives cooking. What's on your plate?
Mooers:We did five $10,000 community grants for what the Council on Postsecondary Education defines as our 22 county service region. We set it up so that the communities could achieve that full $10,000 and their match is based on either cash, or they could be compensated $20 an hour for volunteer hours and really meet that match pretty easily without having to provide any cash. So what we want to see are the five areas of a regional stewardship: health and wellness, safety, government, workforce development and environmental sustainability. So last year we made five awards. This year we've made five. That's what we call a reimbursable grant. So you know, communities are like 'we don't have $10,000 right now.' Well that's OK. It's a reimbursable grant and so show that you've made the expenditure in line with the scope of the grant and then you move forward.
For the university, it's been a wonderful thing for us to be able to do it. It's not a lot of money, but it's a way to start a small project. Each one of these grants requires that the community have an academic partner — it could be a faculty or a staff member. That brings our greatest asset, our faculty and our students, out into those communities to be partners and work alongside them. So for each one of those five grants there's an academic department faculty member tied to that grant and that's exciting because we know that's going to bring our students out there.
Tom Martin's Q&A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader's Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, find the podcast on Kentucky.com. The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9 FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. duringMorning Editionand at 5:45 p.m. duringAll Things Considered.