Home » Op-Ed: Promise Zone connections strengthen communities, digital access, health

Op-Ed: Promise Zone connections strengthen communities, digital access, health

by Jerry Rickett, president & CEO of Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation

Connections are vital to developing jobs and a workforce, creating stronger communities, and providing health care. That’s why for the last nine years, the Kentucky Highlands Promise Zone has been working with businesses, nonprofits, health care and educational institutions to create generational change.

We now have more than 100 partners in the Promise Zone, an initiative that provides a competitive advantage in applying for federal funds and assistance. It has attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in investments for Bell, Harlan, Letcher, Perry, Leslie, Clay, Knox and part of Whitley counties.

And in 2022, those links are leading to improvements and investments in three important areas:

Economic opportunity and community building

  • Kentucky is one of five states to receive a new designation called the Rural Partners Network, transforming how federal agencies collaborate with rural communities to create economic opportunity. This new USDA-led initiative will provide intensive, individualized technical assistance for navigating funding opportunities across federal agencies. A first-of-its-kind collaboration will focus on improving social and economic well-being by building upon existing local partnerships and assets.
  • The University of Kentucky’s CEDIK (Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky) convened a national webinar “Placemaking in Small and Rural Communities” to help rural communities create places where people will want to live, work and visit. The sold-out event had 1,500 registrants and showcased several case studies from the Promise Zone, including Why Whitley, which led to a reimagined downtown green space and an annual outdoor concert series called River Fog. These connections will leverage and maximize resources, leading to energized communities and homegrown opportunities.

Broadband and the digital divide

Broadband is essential infrastructure to connect our communities to job opportunities, health care and education. Important investments were made:

  • Thacker-Grigsby Telephone Company Inc. will use a $12 million grant and a $12 million matching loan through the ReConnect Program to connect 4,466 people, 39 businesses, 27 farms and four educational facilities to high-speed internet in Breathitt and Leslie counties.
  • Partners for Rural Impact was awarded a Rural Placemaking Innovation Challenge award of $160,000 for the Promise Zone’s public libraries to meet their patron’s digital needs. This investment provides librarians with the skills and training to support introducing and expanding Internet use.

Mental health and substance use disorders

We can’t have a strong workforce without mental health and substance use support:

  • Cumberland River Behavioral Health was awarded $3.8 million to provide crisis hub services, including a 24/7 mental health and substance use needs assessment, crisis stabilization, physical health screenings and expanded crisis line services.
  • Promise Zone partners, including Union College and Operation UNITE, convened the first-ever Appalachian Gathering for Recovery Solutions. This event, attended by more than 500 people virtually and in person, brought together all members of the recovery pipeline — from prevention to treatment to second-chance employment.
  • Second-chance employment was boosted through the Appalachian Regional Commission’s awards to Promise Zone partner Fahe, which received $500,000 for second-chance employment. The Center for Rural Development awarded $300,000 to develop second-chance work skills.

Although there was so much to celebrate in 2022, three Promise Zone counties were devastated by the July 28 flooding. Our hearts continue to go out to the victim’s families and to rebuild new communities as rapidly as possible.

The region is resilient. By investing in our people, our health and our infrastructure, we are making connections that lead to greater self-sufficiency and generational change.

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