NEWS: State’s Southern counties win Promise Zone designation

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[Updated 4/29 with charts, info at bottom]

By Andy Brack | The Obama Administration today announced six rural counties in the southern tip of South Carolina won a new federal Promise Zone designation in a program to give pervasively poor places a better chance at getting federal grants and other help.

The state's new Promise Zone essentially is west of Interstate 95 in the southern tip of South Carolina.

The state’s new Promise Zone essentially is west of Interstate 95 in the southern tip of South Carolina.

The designation brings two key tools to the impoverished bottom of the state: a handful of trained federal workers to help counties apply for existing federal grants, and extra points for applications submitted in programs to improve education, grow jobs, boost safety and add affordable housing.

“The Promise Zone designation for our region creates exciting opportunities for our people,” said Danny Black, president and CEO of the SouthernCarolina Alliance.  “As the lead regional organization in this effort, we look forward to working with our partners at the municipal, county, regional, state and federal levels, in both the public and private sectors, to identify, pursue and implement programs that will bring real economic development, community development and workforce training opportunities to our communities.”

Experts say having the Promise Zone designation should pay big dividends to the six counties because they often don’t have the human capital needed to be successful in tapping into federal grant dollars. In the only other rural Promise Zone area announced last year, the eastern area of Kentucky has been successful in winning more than $43 million of major grant funding.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “The Promise Zone designation will catalyze an effort across the South Carolina Lowcountry to meet identified goals essential to increasing the quality of life and accelerating efforts to create comprehensive community revitalization in the region.” Those efforts will be led by the SouthernCarolina Alliance, a Barnwell-based economic development nonprofit that covers the zone counties. Working with more than 28 other partner organizations, it will coordinate efforts to create jobs to improve educational outcomes, increase economic activity to leverage private capital, expand affordable housing and improve public safety.

Just over 90,000 people who live in Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper counties will be impacted through the Promise Zone program, which was first announced in January 2013 as a pragmatic effort to help overlooked places in America. In today’s announcement, eight areas were named Promise Zones, following six last year. The South Carolina zone was the only rural designation announced this year.

In the six-county zone, the poverty rate is 28.12 percent. Unemployment hovers just below 15 percent. The median income for those in the area is $32,705, or 25 percent less than the state’s median household income and 45 percent less than the federal average.  According to a USDA fact sheet on the zone, “educational attainment and employment rates are low among residents and quality affordable housing is scarce.”

“This is a shining example of when people with vision come together to look at what they can do to make their communities a better place,” said Dr. Ann Carmichael, dean of the University of South Carolina-Salkehatchie in Walterboro and Allendale. “This is going to provide a tremendous opportunity to us to address some of the needs that we have to make rural South Carolina stronger.”

In one example in the application for the Promise Zone, the Alliance, in coordination with the counties, nonprofits and private entities, proposed to energize job growth strategies that would help small farmers grow foods to be sold in the state’s metropolitan areas — something that could keep help keep hundreds of millions of dollars in South Carolina. Some 90 percent of the $10 billion of food bought by South Carolinians goes out of state.  Other parts of the strategy include components to boost workforce training and promote manufacturing.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who talked with Black this morning about the importance of the designation, said in a press release, “The Promise Zone effort is proof positive that partnerships are the key to community economic development. Families and children in rural and tribal communities are full of potential to compete and succeed in the 21st Century.  When we invest our resources and establish long-lasting public-private alliances to strengthen educational opportunities, deliver health care, build infrastructure and create jobs, we are investing in our country’s future.”

Nonprofit leaders are ecstatic about the news.

“We finally have a coordinated investment of resources and partners that are really going to be in a position to move the needle,” said Tim Ervolina, head of the United Way Association of South Carolina.

The Palmetto Project, a Mount Pleasant-based nonprofit, is looking forward to working on early childhood literacy efforts, said executive director Steve Skardon.

“This is a great opportunity to provide support for communities in those counties that are trying to address critical issues to create healthier communities,” he said.

SouthernCarolina Alliance’s Black added, “There are challenges in our rural communities that need to be addressed, including infrastructure needs, educational challenges, improved workforce training, healthcare delivery, and community and economic development assistance.  We will work closely with the USDA and other federal partners to leverage public and private investment to bring real progress and opportunity to the region, especially in the creation of private sector jobs.”


Here are some other stories that outline the Promise Zone in South Carolina:


Each of the six county governments (Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper) provided letters of support for the Promise Zone application. Here is a list of the organizations that were part of SouthernCarolina’s successful application for a Promise Zone.

Partner organizations

  • Allendale County Alive
  • Coastal Conservation League
  • Envision SC
  • GrowFoods Carolina
  • Lowcountry Council of Governments
  • Palmetto Agribusiness Council
  • Palmetto Project
  • S.C. Council on Competitiveness
  • S.C. Department of Agriculture
  • S.C. Department of Commerce
  • S.C. Housing Authority
  • S.C. Power Team
  • S.C. Sustainability Institute
  • S.C. Victim Assistance Network
  • State of South Carolina 2nd and 14th Judicial District Circuits
  • Southern Carolina Regional Development Alliance

Supporting organizations

  • Denmark Technical College
  • Electrical Cooperatives of South Carolina
  • Local law enforcement
  • Lower Savannah Council of Governments
  • Private banks
  • S.C. Association for Community Economic Development
  • S.C. Technical College System
  • Technical College of the Lowcountry
  • Transform SC
  • USC Office of Economic Engagement
  • USC Salkehatchie
  • USC Salkehatchie Leadership Institute
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