Sandi Curd, Promise Zone coordinator with Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp., told members of the Tri-Cities Heritage Development Board on Wednesday that Promise Zone planning is underway.
Earlier this year, an eight-county area in southeastern Kentucky was named one of five Promise Zones in the nation. The initiative will give the area a competitive advantage in applying for federal grants as well as additional assistance from various federal agencies that oversee housing, education, economic development, agriculture and safety.
The Promise Zone is comprised of Harlan, Bell, Letcher, Perry, Leslie, Clay and Knox counties, as well as part of Whitley County.
Curd said the six key focus areas include creating jobs, increasing overall economic activity, improving career education opportunities, reducing drug-related problems, improving broadband access and improving healthy food access.
Curd added Harlan County has two representatives on an advisory council who report directly to her. She said those two individuals are local businessman and Meridzo Ministries Director Lonnie Riley and Harlan County Judge-Executive Joe Grieshop. She said Grieshop will be replaced in January when a newly elected judge-executive takes office.
Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation, Curd said, has partnered with: Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, University of Kentucky Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky, Operation UNITE, Center for Rural Development, PRIDE, Southern Tier Housing Corporation, Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, Eastern Kentucky University Center for Economic Development, Entrepreneurship and Technology, Grow Appalachia, Partners for Education at Berea College, Kentucky Campus Compact/Ameri-Corps VISTA program and Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises who have submitted letters committing themselves to the initiative.
Federal agencies who have said they will give “higher priority” to any Promise Zone grants are: U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, U.S. Small Business Association, U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Curd said.
“Promise Zones don’t have money — it’s a promise,” said Curd. “What the Promise Zone does for us from those federal agencies is they are going to take any grants that you write or submit and they are going to give you priority points, which means as you are competing with the rest of the nation your grant is going to go right to the top. They will look at it and review it to see if it is written well and you have a good financial plan, and then they will want to fund it and help out with it.”
Curd said a non-bias third-party person, who operates a statistics company in Philadelphia, has been hired to measure, every two years, how the Promise Zone areas are improving.
“She will look at key census data and tell us if areas are improving,” said Curd. “Some of the things she will look at is if your population is improving, stabilizing or growing, unemployment rate, per capita personal income, needy and household income, home values, amount of population eligible for Medicaid, percentage of persons below poverty, voter turnout, amount of bank deposits in the area, home ownership rates and more.”
Curd said through listening sessions held in different areas, 10 goals have now been set. She said those goals include: building and sustaining a regional economy, collaborating to ensure access to good broadband, seeking competitive advantages based on our natural build and economic and human capital, assure geographic and affordable post-secondary and work-force training, make sure we enhance our Pre-K through adult college education, coordinate our programs to ensure affordable health care, drug and alcohol treatment programs, increase the affordable energy-efficient quality housing for individuals of all families, all ages and all income levels, expand transportation access in the region, revitalize downtowns in the region as retail and residential centers, increase recreational arts and community-engaged opportunities for youth and adults and expand and diversify the pool of community leaders in the region to create opportunities.
“This is our strategic plan,” said Curd. “Since I started six weeks ago, we are up to 25 letters of support for initiatives that have already been started in the Promise Zone.”
Curd added their strategic plan is not fully developed at this time. She said the goals will not change, but “the action strategies of how to get the goals will change over time.”
A question and answer session was held with several community leaders asking about how a recent “Tiger Grant” submitted on behalf of the county to the State Department of Transportation for millions of dollars will be affected through the Promise Zone.
“The county has applied for $17 million, with $7 million of that for the Tri-City area, $3 million of that to be put into the old Cumberland High School for educational things,” said Harlan County Community Action Agency Chairman Roland Cornett. “Will we get priority points with this grant?”
Curd responded by saying, “it’s possible.” She said she will check into the matter. She added she will ask that a letter be written in support of the grant from the Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation.
Lige Buell, an educator at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, asked if there has been any collaboration between the Promise Zone and SOAR.
Curd responded by saying, “no,” but added she will be attending a meeting in the near future with that goal in mind.
“SOAR does not have this federal designation from all these agencies to be able to get priority points,” Curd said.
Nola Sizemore may be reached at 606-573-4510 or on Twitter @Nola_hde