[imgcontainer right] [img:kentucky_5.jpeg] President Bill Clinton toured the Mid-South Electronics plant in 1999. Mid-South expanded with the help of Clinton’s Empowerment Zone. Five years later, however, the plant was closed and 700 people were out of work. [/imgcontainer]

We heard President Obama talk in his State of the Union address about a special effort he planned to lead to revive the economies in 20 areas. 

The Obama Administration is calling these “promise zones.”

Will there be rural “promise zones”? Jackie Calmes reports that, yes, these zones will be selected from applications put in by both urban and rural areas. They will be places that have high unemployment, low rates of high school graduation, high poverty, etc. 

“The premise behind this is that the federal government has to be a positive actor in all of this effort — but as an actor who’s a partner,” said Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. “This has to be driven locally,” Ms. Muñoz added, with the federal government as “a catalyst for change.”

If this all sounds familiar, it should. In 1993, President Bill Clinton announced his plans to create nine Empowerment Zones. We attended a meeting in southern Kentucky with Vice President Al Gore. The idea then was for the federal government to partner with local groups in a regional effort to jumpstart local economies.

There were rural Empowerment Zones and urban EZs back then. And it all sounds the same as the Promise Zones today.

Our memory is that subsequent studies found that the empowerment zones did very little to change local economies. Here is one report. 

University of Kentucky historian Ron Eller followed the rural Empowerment Zone located in Kentucky. His study is not hopeful — but darn sure instructive. 

Eller found that the EZ was quickly taken over by local officials and so “the $40 million proposal reflected primarily the development interests of the corporation (that managed the EZ money) and a few powerful leaders in the three scattered rural counties.”

Most of the money went for “infrastructure” and things like job training and “downtown improvement.” The EZ spent money on recruiting factories to the area, and appeared to worry more about the number of jobs it bagged rather than their quality. For example, the Kentucky EZ recruited a low-wage chicken processing facility to the region.

“Critics charged the EZ with using public funds to bring low-wage, dangerous jobs to the area and with employing large numbers of Hispanics and other workers from outside the county,” Eller wrote in his book on Appalachian development, Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945.

EZ backers pointed to one factory as an example of a successful zone project. President Clinton came to visit this facility in 1999, but five years later the factory had closed, leaving 700 employees without work.

We wonder what about the Obama administration’s plans would produce a different result.

Not Running — Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack is not running for the Iowa Senate seat being opened up by the retirement of Tom Harkin. 

Seed Giants vs. Farmers — The Center for Food Safety has released a new report titled Seed Giants vs. U.S. Farmers. The advocacy groups describes the report: 

The new report investigates how the current seed patent regime has led to a radical shift to consolidation and control of global seed supply and how these patents have abetted corporations, such as Monsanto, to sue U.S. farmers for alleged seed patent infringement.

Seed Giants vs. U.S. Farmers also examines broader socio-economic consequences of the present patent system including links to loss of seed innovation, rising seed prices, reduction of independent scientific inquiry, and environmental issues.

The report tells us, for example, that Monsanto has filed 144 lawsuits involving 410 farmers in 27 different states alleging seed patent infringement.

Mountaintop Removal Rally — Several hundred people showed up at the Kentucky state capitol Thursday to protest mountaintop removal coal mining. 

Montana’s Dark Money — A Democratic governor and Republican state senator are supporting a bill that would force those who pay for anonymous political attacks in Montana to show who is paying for the ads. 

Best Tasting Water — The city of Prairie du Sac in southern Wisconsin has the best tasting water in rural America. So say the judges at the recent Water Rally held by the National Rural Water Association. 

A panel of judges selected the best water based on clarity, bouquet and, of course, taste. The City of Emporia, Kan. won second place, and Village of Psagh, Iowa, placed third. Other finalists included the Village of Roscommon, Mich., and the Village of Trenton, Neb.

Want a Job? Get an Ag Degree — The Wall Street Journal reports that graduates with animal science or ag degrees are picking among multiple job offers.  The paper reports:

With U.S. farm incomes hitting record levels in recent years as global grain prices have climbed, farmers have more money to spend on corn seed, harvesting combines, fertilizer and other products, fueling growth for the agribusiness industry. So, while many U.S. undergraduates continue to face a tough job market amid a slow-growing economy, agriculture students are benefiting from increased on-campus recruiting by agribusinesses such as Monsanto Co., DuPont Co.’s, DuPont Pioneer and Deere.

President Clinton tours the Mid-South Electronics plant with Congressman Paul Kanjorski and owner Jerry Weaver. The plant, which now employs 850 residents, recently expanded with help from a federal empowerment zone tax credit. 

July 5, 1999

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