Obama to unveil 'Promise Zones,' McConnell, Rand Paul in attendance

McClatchy Washington BureauJanuary 9, 2014 

President Barack Obama today will announce his administration's first five "Promise Zones" -- designed to allow the federal government to partner with local communities and business to create jobs.

The first zones will be located in San Antonio, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Southeastern Kentucky, and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. The White House says Obama first announced the initiative during last year’s State of the Union address, as a way to create partnerships to "increase economic security, expand access to educational opportunities and quality, affordable housing and improve public safety."

In a rare moment for the White House, the announcement is attracting bipartisan support: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he and fellow Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul will head to the White House today for the event.

McConnell -- who otherwise blasted Obama in remarks on the Senate floor -- said he was pleased that eight counties in Eastern Kentucky were among those receiving the Promise Zone designation.

"There’s no doubt that Eastern Kentucky is a region that has suffered enormous hardship in recent years – much of it, unfortunately, related to the very same administration’s ‘war’ on coal families," McConnell said. "But the Promise Zone designation is a step in the right direction nonetheless."

He said he and Paul would attend the event, "because we’re encouraged that the president is finally focused on a concrete approach to jobs that members of both parties can support – proving that we can accomplish things when we focus on real efforts rather than political show votes designed to fail."

The Kentucky senators are proposing similar "Economic Freedom Zones" as an amendment to extending unemployment assistance.McConnell said the zones would allow disadvantaged areas to apply for such status, granting small business owners fewer government regulations.

The White House says each of the five zones have put forward a plan on how they'll "partner with local business and community leaders to make investments that reward hard work and expand opportunity." In exchange, the White House says they'll receive "resources and flexibility."

For example, the Kentucky Highland’s Investment Corps’ is focusing on a "sustainable economic effort" across eight counties in the Kentucky Highlands region, focused on diversifying southeastern Kentucky’s economy to make it more resilient.

The White House says it plans to create jobs and grow small businesses by leveraging $1.3 million of private sector funds in a revolving loan fund targeted within the zone.

In order to ensure youth have access to education, Berea College will run what the White House calls "evidence-based college and career readiness programs" for high school students in the zone, while Eastern Kentucky University will expand technical education programs.

The city of San Antonio, which is focusing on its Eastside neighborhood, plans to focus on job creation and training, including a partnership with St. Philip’s College, in growth areas including energy, health care, business support, aerospace/advanced manufacturing, and construction.

It also plans to increase enrollment in pre-K programs; install a science and tech focus in the local school district and improve adult education opportunities.

The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma plans workforce training for skilled trades and professionals and more rigorous summer and after-school programs.

The five Promise Zones announced today are part of 20 that will be announced over the next three years.

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