Recently, I visited southeastern Kentucky, where I joined Rural Development State Director Tom Fern on a whirlwind tour to parts of an eight-county region designated by President Obama as a rural Promise Zone and by Secretary Vilsack as part of USDA’s StrikeForce initiative covering 73 Kentucky counties.
During my first stop, I joined Congressman Hal Rogers as he announced a $23 million loan (funded by USDA’s Community Facilities program) to purchase the property and facilities of the Knox County Hospital in Barbourville. That loan was the first one to come across my desk last December shortly after I joined USDA. Meeting with some of the 200-plus dedicated employees of that hospital affirmed my belief that granting that loan was the right decision, as the funding will enable those healthcare workers to continue to serve the families of the region.
My next visit was to Corbin, also in Knox County, where I toured a USDA-financed apartment complex that also serves as a site for USDA’s Summer Food Service Program. Inspired by Brenda Moses of the KCEOC Community Action Agency and her team – which serves between 40,000 and 60,000 meals each summer – I encouraged borrowers and managers at other USDA-financed housing complexes to also designate their facilities as summer feeding sites.
My last stop was Whitley County, which also benefits from Promise Zone and StrikeForce designations, where I met several families who are not only proud homeowners thanks to USDA’s Single-Family Housing Loan program, but whose homes are certified Passive House Institute US homes. This certification process involves meeting rigorous energy-efficiency standards, from design to completion. Their rural community has the most Passive House Institute certified homes in the continental United States! I joined community leaders to break ground to build 13 more energy-efficient homes. Interestingly, they are built at a houseboat factory that diversified into homebuilding in order to weather the recent economic downturn.
Over the years, southeastern Kentucky has endured great economic challenges. But the work happening there now – through visionary leadership, partnerships, collaboration, and strategic planning – convinces me that the region will meet those challenges as it moves confidently into a brighter future.