[imgcontainer right] [img:promzones+copy.jpg] [source][/source] Rural counties affected by today’s Promise Zone selections: the Choctaw Nation of southeast Oklahoma and eight counties in southeastern Kentucky. The Choctaw Promise Zone may include only portions of some of the highlighted counties. [/imgcontainer]

President Obama has named two economically distressed rural regions to be among the first “Promise Zones” in the administration’s new job-creation and anti-poverty efforts.

The Choctaw Nation of southeast Oklahoma and eight counties in southeastern Kentucky were named in a White House announcement today. The other awardees are located in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and San Antonio, Texas.

The designation will give the regions priority for federal grants and on-site help from federal officials. The White House says the initiative will focus on helping high-poverty areas reduce crime, improve housing options, improve high school graduation rates and create tax incentives to stimulate economic development.

The Choctaw tribal government will administer the project in Oklahoma and “use community groups, businesses and schools to focus on specific education and economic development goals,” the Oklahoman reports.

In Kentucky, the Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp. (KHIC), an economic development nonprofit, will lead the project. “The purpose of the [Promise Zone in Kentucky] is ‘diversifying Southeastern Kentucky’s economy to make it more resilient,’“ the Louisville Courier-Journal reported.

State and regional leaders from the winning rural regions were quick to praise the decision, though Kentucky’s Senator Mitch McConnell implied that the economic problems in southeast Kentucky were partly the doing of the Obama administration to begin with.

“I’m pleased the administration has decided to grant Eastern Kentucky the Promise Zone designation it deserves,” McConnell said in a statement. “This region has suffered enormous economic hardship over the last several years. Thousands of jobs have been lost and economic opportunity is extremely limited, particularly because of this administration’s hostile policies toward the coal industry.”

McConnell, a Republican, wrote a letter of support for the winning KHIC grant proposal. 

Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear, a Democrat, backed the KHIC proposal and was less reserved in praise for the Obama administration’s decision.

“As we know, there is no single solution to the many challenges facing Eastern Kentucky; rather, any meaningful plan will require a broad combination of efforts to transform the economy of this region,” Beshear said. “The Promise Zone is just the kind of partnership that will spark new innovative efforts to grow the economy, empower new leaders and support families in Eastern Kentucky.”

The Kentucky zone will cover Bell, Clay, Harlan, Knox, Leslie, Letcher, Perry and Whitley counties. The region has a population of about 200,000 and a poverty rate of about 30%.

The zone in Oklahoma will cover parts of 10 counties, the Oklahoman reports: Atoka, Bryan, Coal, Choctaw, Haskell, Latimer, Le Flore, McCurtain, Pittsburg and Pushmataha. The poverty rate for the region is 22.6%, 7 points above the national rate.

Choctaw Nation Chief Gregory E. Pyle said that the tribe will work with regional, county, municipal, school and university partners and that “great things can occur to lift everyone in Southeastern Oklahoma when we work together,” the Oklahoman reported.

“This designation will assist ongoing efforts to emphasize small business development and bring economic opportunity to the high-need communities. I am confident that access to the technical assistance and resources offered by the Promise Zone designation will result in better lifestyles for people living and working within the Choctaw Nation.”

The administration hopes to designate a total of 20 Promise Zones in coming years.

Obama announced the Promise Zone initiative (though not by name) in his 2013 State of the Union Address.

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