A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Jerry Rickett: New Promise Zone initiatives target education, economic development, broadband

Here’s the good news: Partners in the Kentucky Promise Zone, a 10-year initiative that provides a competitive advantage in applying for federal funds and assistance, have attracted more than $1 billion in investments since the designation began in 2014 for Bell, Harlan, Letcher, Perry, Leslie, Clay, Knox and part of Whitley counties.

The ongoing challenge is that those same counties are hemorrhaging more than $1 billion annually in lost wages from direct and indirect coal industry jobs as well as population loss. That’s right – each year, our families, local economies, schools and local governments are feeling a $1billion negative impact.

Jerry Rickett

But every year, progress is being made. Three initiatives announced in 2021 will invest in college and career readiness, economic development and workforce training, affordable housing and broadband access. Even in the midst of the pandemic, opportunities for generational change are occurring.

First, an $8.8 million private investment from Blue Meridian Partnership, as part of its Place Matters initiative, will design a comprehensive strategic plan to address cradle-to-career education and apply for Phase II funding. Students will become well-positioned for college and career through the work of four core partners: Save the Children, Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program (EKCEP), Fahe and Partners for Education at Berea College.

Second, Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation was awarded $1.5 million by the Appalachian Regional Commission for a project to increase access to capital and technical assistance for businesses as well as boost employee skills and training.

The Kentucky Highlands Empowerment Zone/Promise Zone (EZ/PZ) Project will target the Kentucky Promise Zone counties, the former Empowerment Zone Counties (Jackson, Wayne and Clinton) and McCreary County to create 400 to 425 new jobs as well as increase education and training for 400 workers. It will include:

• A $650,000 revolving loan fund to stabilize and expand capital to businesses and organizations that serve the public good, such as healthcare entities;

• Business management and technical assistance from KHIC staff;

• $150,000 to launch the Career Ladder Incentive Program, which will enhance employees’ skills by reimbursing organizations 50 percent of tuition and fees for each employee completing a certificate or training; and

• Work with EKCEP to expand Teleworks USA, a remote-work training and job placement program, to Clinton, Wayne and Whitley counties.

The project will meet several crucial needs in our region. It will address a shortage in capital investment available to local businesses, provide much-needed specialized technical assistance, boost labor participation rates by expanding remote work opportunities and increase employees’ upward mobility through career-advancing continuing education.

Third, KHIC was one of only four organizations in the nation to receive a full $250,000 grant from USDA for a program called Affordable Housing Ecosystem’s Accessing Development (AHEAD). The objective is simple, yet powerful – increase the quality of life for the residents in public housing with broadband, which will improve education, access to healthcare, employment, aging-in-place and entertainment. AHEAD will convene specific public, private and philanthropic partners to remove barriers preventing public housing residents from accessing broadband. Public and private partners include Kentucky USDA Rural Development, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Fahe, the Center for Rural Development, and the Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky (CEDIK), which is based in the College of Agriculture at the University of Kentucky.

Every day, we are working to turn vision into action and dreams into reality. It’s difficult work in difficult circumstances, but together, we are ensuring that these investments will result in long-term economic stability and well-being for generations to come.

Jerry Rickett is president & CEO of Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation, which is coordinating and managing the federal Promise Zone. KHIC, founded in 1968 to stimulate economic growth in nine counties in Southern and Eastern Kentucky, now serves 22 counties in the region and has created more than 20,000 jobs. For more information, visit www.khic.org.

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