Op-Ed

At halfway point, Kentucky Promise Zone sparking generational changes

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Drone and ground footage of Robinson Forest provided by UK College of Agriculture.
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Drone and ground footage of Robinson Forest provided by UK College of Agriculture.

We’re now at the halfway point of the Kentucky Promise Zone, a 10-year commitment that established one of the first five federal Promise Zones in the country and the first one in a rural area.

But the partnerships forged, strategies implemented and investments made will be felt for generations. Improvements to educational attainment, better access to treat addiction and chronic health issues, increased long-term private investment – those are foundational changes upon which long-lasting success is built.

Bell, Harlan, Letcher, Perry, Leslie, Clay, Knox and part of Whitley county have gained a competitive advantage in applying for federal funds as well as additional assistance from federal agencies that oversee housing, education, economic development, agriculture and safety. Those agencies also provide increased coordination to help the counties maximize federal and private investment.

The Kentucky Promise Zone has grown from an original 12 partners to 93, provided more than 400 grant applications with letters of support and identified $729 million in investments that have been announced for the Promise Zone during the next 5 to 7 years.

During year five, there were three areas – education, health and the new Opportunity Zone designations – that continued to spark momentum for progress: Education Partners for Education at Berea College received $109 million with two new Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) grants. The funds will help students in 19 Kentucky counties, including Promise Zone counties, prepare for college and receive the support they need to achieve success in postsecondary education.

The U.S. Department of Education grants will allow Partners for Education to work with a range of postsecondary institutions and key organizations to serve almost 20,000 students in 66 schools by offering a comprehensive set of programs for parents, students and schools to support and sustain a college-going culture.

It’s a formula that has proven successful: This past spring, high schools in the GEAR UP service region reported higher ACT scores and college-going rates for their senior classes. In addition, the Promise Zone STEM Camp, which received some funding through GEAR UP, continued for a third year.

The lack of health-care providers is the largest barrier for rural residents to accessing care. In Kentucky, 43 percent of the population lives in rural areas, but only 28 percent of physicians work in rural areas. Two grants will bring a total of $1.5 million in investment for telemedicine.

Grace Health received a $496,081 USDA Grant and also will provide a match of $153,786 to use telemedicine to expand services to provide primary care, behavioral health and patient engagement services using telemedicine.

In addition, Baptist Health Foundation Corbin received a grant of $1.05 million over 3 years from the Health Resources and Services Administration to help develop and expand its tele-behavioral health program. It will focus on providing mental health and substance abuse treatment across the region to patients in schools and primary-care settings as well as in the emergency department at a sister hospital.

In 2018, 144 sites in 84 Kentucky counties were designated as Opportunity Zones, which will be in effect for 10 years to assist existing and new businesses. The goal is to make communities self-sufficient by creating wealth and jobs through redevelopment of blighted amenities and other infrastructure.

Kentucky Highlands worked closely with the state on Census data to identify the sites. Our Promise Zone experience in working with federal partners will help the region maximize the potential of the Opportunity Zones. We have the regional and national relationships in place to help attract funding for future venture capital investment.

These three strategic areas will create communities with a healthier, more educated work force and citizens who will be poised to thrive long after the Promise Zone designation is over.

Jerry Rickett is president & CEO of Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation, which is coordinating and managing the federal Promise Zone.

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