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by Jerry Rickett

You don’t need another person telling you the challenges facing Eastern Kentucky. You’ve either read the stories, or, if you reside in the region, you witness them every day. 

Now is the time to focus on opportunity, assets and collaboration. That’s where we’ll begin as we lead and administer the recently announced federal Promise Zone, which is comprised of Bell, Harlan, Letcher, Perry, Leslie, Clay, Knox counties and part of Whitley County. 

This eight-county area in Southeastern Kentucky was named one of only five Promise Zones in the country. The initiative will give the area a competitive advantage in applying for federal grants as well as additional assistance from various federal agencies that oversee housing, education, economic development, agriculture and safety. Those agencies also will provide increased coordination to help the counties maximize federal and private investment.

The eight communities have agreed to allow KHIC to act as the coordinating entity to marshal resources, which will allow regional solutions rather than narrowly viewing the problem within a single county. This is an important step that will more effectively utilize resources and assets that have already been committed to the Promise Zone.  


What Kentucky Highlands has learned in our 45-year history is that success starts with a setback. That’s right – a setback. Not everyone is an overnight success or has an easy road to prosperity. In fact, we often work with entrepreneurs who’ve had a business close. We find that they’ve learned from their mistakes, and they’ve persevered. And we’re not the only with this philosophy. Pick up any leading business publication. Ask billionaire business mogul Richard Branson, who has said failure is one of the secrets to success. 

Or, consider a few examples in Kentucky. Colonel Sanders was fired from several jobs, and his first restaurant went out of business. Thomas Edison was called “addled” by a schoolmaster and fired from his job in Louisville before acquiring more than 1,000 patents on his inventions. Abraham Lincoln lost multiple bids for office.

So setbacks are not just a part of life, they are a part of success – if you keep striving.

Being awarded this designation is a testament to the collaboration and leadership in the region – from the private sector to local governments to nonprofit organizations. The Promise Zone will be driven by the true needs of community, built upon the region’s assets and contain comprehensive solutions to address the many challenges facing our region. With input and effort from the entire community, we can create a sustainable strategy for the future.   

Efforts will focus on five key areas:  

  1. Creating jobs: We have helped create more than 18,000 jobs, of which more than 10,000 were created by helping develop homegrown entrepreneurs. That makes the jobs and profits from those companies less likely to leave the region.
  2. Increasing economic activity: The strategies and partnerships we’ve deployed have clear evidence of increasing economic activity and investments by providing access to capital, providing hands-on technical and management assistance, and engaging in partnerships to leverage funds and resources while sharing the risk. KHIC has provided more than $275 million in financing to more than 625 businesses, which in  turn have produced goods and services valued at $6.5 billion and paid more than $2.1 billion in wages;
  3. Improving career educational opportunities: Partnerships with the University of Kentucky, Berea College, Eastern Kentucky University and Hazard Community & Technical College will help area residents with everything from academic achievement to college and career readiness to entrepreneurial training;
  4. Reducing crime – particularly drug-related crimes: Our primary partner is Operation UNITE, which focuses on preventing drug use and breaking the cycle of crime and incarceration (including the establishment of drug courts); and
  5. Improving broadband access: Research shows that rural communities that had greater broadband access had greater economic growth, employment growth and access to online continuing education. The Center for Rural Development will work to expand broadband access in underserviced areas.

We have more than a dozen partners in local, state and federal governments; the non-profit sector; schools, colleges and universities; law enforcement; and, importantly, private sector investment. But the collaboration won’t end there.

We are working with the University of Kentucky Extension Service’s Community & Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky to create a strategic plan within the first 120 days that will provide an opportunity for public input. 

To assist in setting policies and bringing resources to the Promise Zone, KHIC will establish a Promise Zone Advisory Committee. It will include two representatives from each of the eight counties and the chairman of Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation.  

KHIC is confident the processes and investments that we and our partners will bring to the Promise Zone will yield a measurable return in terms of jobs created, increased tax base, decreased government spending on social programs, technology improvements, crime reduction and private investment. Of equal importance will be the immeasurable returns in terms of self-sufficiency, self-esteem and community well-being.      

It’s time to start looking forward – with the wisdom from past mistakes, the awareness of current challenges and the determination for future success.

Jerry Rickett is president and CEO of Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation. Founded in 1968 to stimulate economic growth in nine counties in Southern and Eastern Kentucky, it now serves 22 counties in the region and has created more than 18,000 jobs.




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