New Hope In Southeastern Kentucky 'Promise Zone'

Jan 16, 2014
Originally published on March 7, 2014 7:46 pm
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This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, Twitter runs on messages of 140 characters or less. So how could you possibly use it to deliver a polished piece of fiction? Writer Teju Cole figured out how, and he'll tell us about his experiment in Twitter-ature in just a few minutes. But first, we want to talk more about President Obama's so-called promise zones. These are the five areas around the country that the White House has chosen for special economic revitalization projects. Yesterday, we spoke about the administration's hopes for the program with the Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. He pointed out that the image of poverty a lot of us have down-at-the-heels urban neighborhoods isn't the whole story.


TOM VILSACK: If you take a look at the persistently poor counties in the United States, there's 703 of them. And of the 703, 571 persistently poor counties are rural.

MARTIN: And one of those is in Southeastern Kentucky. Eight counties in the Kentucky Highlands area were chosen to take part in the initial phase of the Promise Zone Initiative. Jerry Rickett is the president and CEO of the Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation. And I talked with him earlier this week to find out more about the work his organizations and others have done to help earn that promise zone designation.


JERRY RICKETT: The Kentucky Highlands area had been selected as a Stronger Economies Together region, and we were working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the extension service on health care that was actually growing. And we've been working over a three-year period to look for investments and things we could do to help expand that industry or help it grow. And because of that designation, the 22 counties were eligible. So...

MARTIN: So talk a little bit about what's going on in those counties now if you would. As I understand it, the average poverty rate in the designated area is more than 30 percent. And why is that? What's been going on there that's led to that circumstance?

RICKETT: Well, we're located in Central Appalachia. The region has been losing population. The economy has really struggled with the downturn. Recently, in the last few years, we've had a decline in the employment in the coal industry in our region. And those were pretty good paying jobs, which have a lot of supply businesses and trucking companies and things that supported that industry, you know, they've lost employment as well.

MARTIN: I was understanding that there are about 2,000 coal-related jobs have gone away over the course of the recession. Is that right?

RICKETT: Yes, ma'am.

MARTIN: Were the coal companies cutting back, or what? They brought in technology that made those jobs redundant?

RICKETT: It's all of the above. One of the bigger determinants has been the migration of coal-fired electrical generation plants. They're going to be converted over to natural gas or taken off-line.

MARTIN: Were these pretty good paying jobs that have gone away in recent years?

RICKETT: Well, the mining jobs paid an average salary of $63,000 a year. And those dollars were generated from outside our region. So, you know, the loss of the revenue coming into the region certainly has added to the distress the region already was experiencing.

MARTIN: So how will this promise zone designation makes things better? What will you be able to do that you haven't already been doing?

RICKETT: Well, you know, we're going to work with the groups that cover Eastern Kentucky. University of Kentucky's extension service is going to help us put a strategic plan together - you know, how we can take best advantage of the priorities that you mentioned early on.

We also, you know, think there's a lot we can do by just working together with the technical assistance that's going to be provided from the different agencies that the president's asked to work with us on the promise zone. Also, I think the technical systems will bring best practices to us - you know, what has worked well in similar situations around the country. You know, are those things that we can do with the organizations that are part of their strategic plans as we try to go forward.

MARTIN: Well, 'cause, you know, the skeptics are saying there's no new money here. So what's the good part about it?

RICKETT: Go back 20 years. Kentucky Highlands was fortunate to be the lead entity for one of the Round 1 Empowerment Zones. And with that program, we received $40 million of grant funds. But also there was priority for other funding - very similar to what this program is, if I understand it properly. We were able to put together over $100 million through these programs that impacted the zone in a very positive way in the zone residents.

MARTIN: Well, the fact that you - as we said, this was a competitive process and that you were selected, you know, for this has to feel like validation for the work that you've already done. Can you - you want to brag a little bit and tell us about some of the things that you've already done that maybe other groups might want to look at?

RICKETT: Well, Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation, we work in 22 counties. And we do economic development, primarily working in training and financing of entrepreneurial companies and try to keep existing businesses here. With USDA's approval, we can originate guaranteed loans through their business and industry guaranteed loans. Largest one was ever done was around $10 million to a business that, you know, helped them stay here and grow. All the way...

MARTIN: What do they do? Anything I care about? Do they make shoes or something - something that I want?

RICKETT: Well, they make transmission parts...

MARTIN: Oh, wow.

RICKETT: ...For cars that you drive.

MARTIN: Oh. Oh, OK, well...

RICKETT: And we were really glad to keep them 'cause they're - you know, they pay well, and it's a very efficient company. They've grown nicely since we did that.


RICKETT: But we go all the way down to - loan size down to microloans. We've been around for 45 years. We were part of the War on Poverty. We were initially funded by the office of economic opportunity to, you know, try to generate employment opportunities in, you know, this region of Southeastern Kentucky. So we tried to work with the programs that are available to help us invest in our region. And when you invest in, you know, the American free enterprise system, jobs are a result of that.

MARTIN: Jerry Rickett is the president and CEO of the Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation. That's the organization that pursued and won a promise zone dedication. And he was kind enough to join us from London, Kentucky. Jerry Rickett, thank you so much for joining us. Will you keep us posted on how things are going?

RICKETT: Certainly. Anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.