President Barack Obama has named eight counties in southeastern Kentucky as one of the first Promise Zones, a 10-year designation to focus resources and expertise on communities where, as he said during the announcement, “no matter how hard you work, your destiny feels like it’s already been determined for you before you took that first step.”
The University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, through its Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky and its Small Business Development Center will be among the implementation partners working with the project administrator, Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation, to help improve the economy, health and education in Bell, Clay, Harlan, Knox, Leslie, Letcher, Perry and Whitley counties. The counties were hard hit by the coal industry decline.
The partnership is the continuation of what has historically been a highly successful relationship.
“We’ve worked with Kentucky Highlands in the past on regional economic development initiatives,” said Alison Davis, CEDIK executive director. “Their CEO Jerry Ricketts and all their development staff are wonderful. They have tremendous passion for improving all the communities they serve.”
CEDIK staff will be focusing on several aspects of what everyone hopes will be a better future for southeastern Kentucky. Davis and UK Community and Leadership Development Professor Lori Garkovich will jump in almost immediately by leading government officials, small-business owners, nonprofit organizations and local citizens in the designated counties through strategic planning with a “bottom-up” approach.
“We really want to know what the communities hope to get from this opportunity; where they see the future, what types of resources and assets they think they have and how they can build on them,” Davis said.
She said they also plan to help implement a revised American Private Enterprise System in the zone’s school systems over the next five years. Led by the college’s Department of Agricultural Economics and Assistant Dean Quentin Tyler, director of the Office of Diversity, the program’s objectives are to increase students’ knowledge of domestic and global economies and prepare them for an active role in business. In addition, CEDIK will create youth civic engagement leadership programs in at least two counties.
The new leadership program, currently being piloted in Bath County, is designed to guide young people through the intricacies of local and state government and introduce them to the importance of entrepreneurship to their local economy. Another program goal is to create vibrant communities by promoting better health and community arts initiatives.
“By the end of the program, these kids will have a better understanding of their community, the opportunities as well as the obstacles,” Davis said. “We want the youth to help create a place where others would want to live and raise their children.”
In partnership with the Small Business Development Center, CEDIK will also be working with select firms in their early-growth phase on a program called Economic Gardening, which was designed by the Edward Lowe Foundation. The program provides intensive business counseling to a firm’s leaders that includes identifying and prioritizing business opportunities, refining a company’s core business strategies and using social media to connect with customers.
Finally, CEDIK staff will be continuing their efforts in the community health arena by working with the UK Center for Excellence in Rural Health to assist hospitals and health providers in implementing strategies that address the health needs in their communities.
“I believe this (the Promise Zones program) can make a difference if it is a bottom-up approach, where the communities themselves and the local leaders determine what’s best for their unique assets,” Davis said. “I think the emphasis on youth and the emphasis on a diversified economic portfolio will make a difference.”
The Obama administration named five of what will ultimately be 20 Promise Zones; the other four are in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Antonio and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.
Alison Davis, 859-257-7260