Programs to improve the economy in Eastern Kentucky will receive a total of $13.7 million in grants under a federal initiative aimed at helping areas struggling because of a downturn in coal jobs, agencies announced Wednesday.
An additional $4.9 million will go to agencies in neighboring states that have regional development programs that include Eastern Kentucky, according to a news release from the White House.
The University of Pikeville received the biggest grant announced Wednesday — nearly $7.5 million to buy equipment and instructional supplies to get its College of Optometry going.
The college will be the second optometry college in the Appalachian region and will boost the health care workforce and improve access to eye care, the White House said.
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The grant calls for the school to graduate 60 optometrists in its first three years.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a news release that UPike officials told him that the Kentucky College of Optometry will set up “a major on-site clinic and partnerships with local federally qualified health care centers and hospitals in the region experiencing health care shortages.”
“The University of Pikeville continues to do outstanding work in providing support and training for its students, and I was pleased to work with them to help secure these competitive grants,” McConnell said.
The money for the optometry college came through the U.S. Economic Development Administration and the Appalachian Regional Commission.
The agencies are part of what the Obama administration calls the POWER initiative, for Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization.
The initiative provides money for programs including worker training in areas where job losses in coal and related industries — such as power plants — have hurt the economy.
Coal jobs have dropped by more than half in Eastern Kentucky in recent years.
A number of factors have played a role in that, including competition from cheap natural gas and other coal basins, tougher environmental rules aimed at improving air and water quality, rising use of renewable energy sources, and high production costs in the region.
The POWER initiative is part of a larger proposal from the Obama administration that includes shoring up health and pension funds for members of the United Mine Workers of America and speeding up the release of $1 billion in abandoned mine land funding for development projects in coal areas.
Congress has not approved those parts of the proposal.
The other grants announced Wednesday were:
▪ $2.75 million to the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program which is based in Hazard and works in 23 counties, to train people for information technology jobs.
The White House said the initiative would train 200 workers and create 160 jobs.
U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican who represents Eastern and Southern Kentucky, said the money will help fill positions at a private company preparing to do technology work in the region.
“In this new technology age, our workforce in Eastern Kentucky needs to be a well-trained ‘tech force’ to capitalize on the growing number of technology-based companies and jobs,” said Rogers, who has supported increased funding for efforts to improve the region’s economy.
▪ $2 million to the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development for a program that has several parts, including worker training, technical assistance for entrepreneurs and a plan to put former coal-industry employees to work at energy-efficiency businesses.
The nonprofit also will set up a $1 million venture capital fund to boost business development.
The White House said the project will create 200 jobs.
“We need to create a new post-coal economy in Eastern Kentucky that is more diverse, sustainable and equitable,” Mountain Association president Peter Hille said in a news release.
Hille said that will require strengthening the “entrepreneurial ecosystem” — the networks and resources needed to support entrepreneurs in a wide range of sectors.
▪ $1.4 million to the University of Kentucky Research Foundation for work aimed at revitalizing downtown areas in cities in southeastern Kentucky counties in a designated Promise Zone. The counties are Bell, Harlan, Letcher, Perry, Leslie, Clay, Knox and part of Whitley.
Other funding announced Wednesday included $1.5 million for an effort to develop a distribution network for locally produced foods in parts of Eastern Kentucky and other states; $1.37 million to boost expansion of the Hatfield McCoy Trail in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia; and $2.1 million to a program called EntreEd K-14: Every Student, Every Year, which helps teachers incorporate entrepreneurial content into other curriculum.
The program is based in Charleston, W.Va., but it will expand into 11 Kentucky counties with the funding.
Altogether, the administration announced $38.8 million for 29 economic and workforce training projects in Appalachia.