- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 23, 2014

SLADE, Ky. (AP)— Sitting at a state resort in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, officials highlighted the need for more money to market the area to tourists as a way to restart the community’s economy in the wake of thousands of job losses from the declining coal industry.

The recommendation is just one of hundreds of ideas listed in a 377-page report released Tuesday that had input from more than 2,500 people across 53 counties. The report is part of the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR), the high-profile effort from Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers to figure out how to diversify the area’s economy after more than a century of depending on the coal industry.

“Tourism will be one of the linchpins to diversifying this economy in eastern Kentucky,” Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear said.

Leaders touted the areas attractions, including mountains in the east, lakes in the south and country music scattered throughout. They bemoaned the lack of funds to promote the area, noting that leaders in the area don’t talk to each other.

“Virtually every county has one festival during the course of the year that nobody knows what it is,” said Phil Osborne, chairman of the group’s tourism, arts and heritage committee.

Bob Stewart, secretary of the state’s Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, said Kentucky normally spends about $3 million each year to promote tourism - a sum he says neighboring states easily outspend every year. To make a difference, he said the state needs a marketing campaign of at least $10 million per year.

It’s unclear where the state can get this money. State lawmakers finished the year with a $90 million deficit. And growing liabilities in the state’s public employee pension systems and its growing Medicaid rolls will place more pressure on state lawmakers going forward.

SOAR will have its own financial obligations. At the start of Tuesday’s meeting, Treasurer Donovan Blackburn told the group they had a balance of about $800. But that sum rose quickly with a $5,000 donation from the Kentucky Association of Counties and a four year, $750,000 commitment from the Appalachian Regional Commission that will cover half of the group’s administrative expenses.

The group also approved an agreement with the state Department of Local government for $400,000 over the next two years.

State officials stressed that the report is just the starting point for a long process.

“This is big time. We’re looking for real change, real diversification. It takes people with talent and devotion and perseverance,” Mr. Rogers said. “This is a long process and we’ll work every day to make it happen.”

Other ideas in the report include:

-Offering small loans between $2,000 and $5,000 to out-of-work Kentuckians to help them purchase the equipment and livestock necessary to start farming.

-Set aside a portion of coal taxes to pay for incentives to lure companies to eastern Kentucky.

-Pay up to $100,000 per year to manage regional industrial parks that would work to attract more industry to the region.

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