Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)


March 9, 2014

Promise Zone

8 counties chosen for latest effort to combat poverty

ASHLAND — Uncle Sam’s latest effort to combat poverty in eastern Kentucky will soon begin in eight counties in southeastern Kentucky. Here’s hoping this program proves more effective at improving the economic health of this region than the programs launched a half century ago when President Lyndon Jonson came to eastern Kentucky to declare “War on Poverty.”

The eight Kentucky counties named “Promise Zones” are Bell, Clay, Harlan, Knox, Leslie, Letcher, Perry and Whitley. Together they represent some of the poorest counties in the nation.

The Appalachian Regional Commission, which has been fighting poverty in this region since the 1960s, has awarded funding to launch the Promise Zone program in the eight counties The ARC says the $250,000 grant will allow the Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation to begin implementing the program in the counties.

President Barack Obama announced in January the region was one of five that would be targeted for tax incentives and federal grants under a government “Promise Zone” program. Under the program, the federal government will partner with the communities to create jobs, improve the economy and expand educational opportunities.

ARC Federal Co-Chair Earl F. Gohl said the agency was “pleased to be awarding the very first Promise Zone grant, a $250,000 two-year allocation, to support the work of the Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp. as it takes on the leadership role for the Southeastern Kentucky Promise Zone initiative.”

“The Promise Zone is an exciting tool in our efforts to transform the economy of Kentucky’s Appalachian region,” Gov. Steve Beshear said. “Promoting partnerships that can help revitalize our communities, investing in job creation and expanding educational opportunities will make up essential parts of our ongoing Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative. The Promise Zone presents a rare opportunity to accelerate our progress, spark innovation, and empower and support families in eastern Kentucky.”

Area leaders have said they hope the Promise Zone funds will build on the ideas discussed at SOAR’s regional economic in Pikeville late last year.

The Kentucky Promise Zone comes at a critical time in this region, as hundreds of jobs have been lost in recent years as coal mines have shut down. Coal mining provided the best paying jobs in the eight counties and miners helped fuel the economy of those counties by supporting local businesses,

Coal mining has always been something of a boom-and-bust industry that runs in cycles, but this time many fear the good times will never return to the industry as power plants switch to natural gas and other more environmentally friendly fuels to become less dependent on coal.  The closing down of much of the Big  Sandy Power Plant near Louisa is expected to eliminate more good-paying jobs in this region, both for the plant itself and for the mines that supply the plant with coal. Dozens of truck drivers who depend on delivering coal from the mines to the power plant also will lose their jobs.

Our hope is that those involved in Kentucky’s only Promise Zone will concentrate their efforts on creating jobs that do not rely on coal. That will not be easy because the counties are hilly, rural and, despite dramatic improvements in highways in the last 50 years, still somewhat difficult to get to.

The eight counties also have another obstacle to economic development that they created and only they can fix: a woefully undereducated adult workforce. Not only are there not many college graduates living in the eight counties, but too many residents do not even have a high school degree. That’s why we are happy to see that improving educational opportunities is one of the stated goals of the Promise Zones. Now if we could only get more people to take advantage of those opportunities.

It is never easy to create good jobs in rural communities many miles from the nearest interstate highway. Not having an educated adult workforce just makes it that much more difficult. We hope a new state law that makes school attendance mandatory until 18 will not only dramatically reduce the unacceptably high dropout rates in this region, but it also will convince would-be dropouts forced to spend another two years in school to use that time wisely by taking their studies seriously.

The $250,000 grant spread out over two years in eight counties is not enough money to have a great impact, but maybe it will provide the seed money that will grow into great programs that will change the face of this region. One can only hope.

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