There is no better Kentucky product than our people — hard-working, resilient problem-solvers.
That’s why our people must be the solution to transforming Eastern Kentucky’s economy. And that’s why people are the foundation of the Kentucky Highlands Promise Zone, which is celebrating its fourth year in Bell, Harlan, Letcher, Perry, Leslie, Clay, Knox and part of Whitley counties.
Despite a continuing decline in the coal-based economy, which has experienced a 60-percent job loss in recent years, America’s first Rural Promise Zone shows some bright spots. Data from the first two years of the Promise Zone, which are the latest available because of a lag in census numbers, show an increase in college/career-ready high school graduates, self-employment, property assessment values, direct tourism expenditures and households occupied.
Although it is premature to know whether these changes are the result of Promise Zone activities, it does supply hope that the region can have a diversified economy and improved quality of life.
Promise Zone’s people are moving the region forward in education, entreprenuership and in building partnerships.
The total percent of high school graduates in Promise Zone counties that are college and/or career ready increased by 42.9 percent — from 49.4 percent to 70.6 percent between 2013 and 2016. In addition, by 2016, the rate of college/career-ready graduates was higher than the statewide rate.
One notable program is an effort that brought together educators and work force development officials to create a performance partnership pilot for youth at risk of dropping out of high school.
Former Clay County High School student Raleigh Smith is one of these young folks. Raleigh was not engaged and was thinking of dropping out. Because of the pilot program, Raleigh had a career counselor who helped him think about his goals.
Raleigh wasn’t interested in college, so the counselor introduced him to an electrician’s apprenticeship that he could start once he graduated high school. He finished high school knowing he had a plan. Raleigh now makes $12 an hour while learning a trade. More importantly, he is on track for a job where he can earn $60,000 annually while staying in the region.
Self-employment has increased 5.3 percent in the counties — from 13,839 proprietors in 2012 to 14,576 in 2015. That’s almost 25 percent higher than the statewide average.
Homegrown entrepreneurs are less likely to move their business and will be a strong component of the community. They also know how to leverage our strengths.
Take Kitt Creek Forestry Products, a family-owned small business in Harlan County. Established in 2015 using the abandoned coal mine property of Kentucky’s very first coal operation, Jesse Whitfield and his sister Elizabeth Jennings have led the family in starting a prepackaged bundled fire wood business. It now has 28 employees and sales that have grown seven times over.
Although creating jobs for unemployed Harlan County coal miners was their top priority, seeing the pride on the workers faces as the business continues to grow has been the best thing about owning their own small business, according to Whitfield.
The third key is partnerships, which are especially important because the Promise Zone receives no guaranteed federal funding or tax credits. We must maximize the strengths of existing organizations to make a difference.
One example is the announcement of 600 jobs at Senture, a contact center and data management company that has renovated and reinvigorated the old CSC building in Williamsburg. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Cumberlands Workforce, the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, Whitley County Judge-Executive Pat White Jr. and Mayor Roddy Harrison all were partners in the effort. Rep. Hal Rogers celebrated the power of partnering by cutting the ribbon to officially open the facility.
By focusing on education, entrepreneurship and partnerships, the Kentucky Highlands Promise Zone is making strides today but also working to ensure long-term success and sustainability that won’t be dependent on anything other than our greatest product — our people.
Jerry Rickett is president & CEO of Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation, which is coordinating and managing the federal Promise Zone. For more information, visit http://www.khic.org.