There’s a palpable sense of energy flowing through the six counties of the southern tip of South Carolina in the federally-designated Promise Zone, which is now a year and a half old.
Walk along a downtown street or drive past expanding businesses and you get a tingling that things are happening. Two years ago, the SouthernCarolina Alliance, lead partner of the Promise Zone, was about the only regional organization that worked to pull people together to develop projects to benefit the area. Fortunately, the organization had the foresight in 2014 to try to win the Promise Zone designation as a way to bolster inter-agency collaboration and get local, state and federal organizations in silos to come out into the open and work better together.
So far, the Promise Zone is fulfilling its mission. Not only is SouthernCarolina Alliance continuing its vital work of promoting investment and bringing opportunities to our region, but people across the Promise Zone are rolling up their sleeves to make things better for their families and future.
Over the last 18 months, Promise Zone partners and supporters have applied for more than $75 million in federal grants and loans, already winning more than $14 million in funding that we may not have gotten without the designation. We’ve got fingers crossed on other applications still under consideration.
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In December, SouthernCarolina Alliance sponsored an in-depth, specialized training program to help partners and supporters become better able to apply for more federal funding to address needs in the Promise Zone’s strategic plan. Seventeen area professionals participated and found the four-day training to be helpful. In fact, one person noted: “It was great! I learned how to be 110 percent better at grant-writing because of this course.” We believe this kind of help will empower organizations to submit more grant applications, which should lead to increased federal funding.
There are more recent successes to celebrate:
▪ The smart growth workshop in November by a national group that brought Bamberg residents together to develop long-term strategies for the future.
▪ The team from Allendale and Hampton counties that flew to Ohio in October to take part in a national community-leadership training conference by NeighborWorks America to develop new skills to bring back home.
▪ The community-building efforts of the S.C. Arts Commission and its mavens in each county who are working to develop how the arts and culture can be incorporated into local economic successes.
▪ The group of Allendale residents who started their own community Promise Zone committee to explore federal grant opportunities to improve their county.
All of these things — plus scores of other meetings and collaborations across the six-county region — are examples of the new energy and verve that are bubbling because of the Promise Zone designation awarded in April 2015.
In the months ahead, the Center for a Better South will start offering intensive one-day workshops to help people in the counties build more capacity for economic development. Following seven focus groups this fall in each of the area’s counties, we heard loud and clear that individuals and nonprofits believe they will benefit from training to improve skills for applying for available grants, build businesses, market their organizations and develop community skill sets. Next month, we will kick off our training efforts with a grant-writing class in Allendale, followed by another in March in Walterboro.
Bottom line: The S.C. Promise Zone is bubbling with activity. We’ve been successful so far, but to continue success, we’ve got to keep pushing and keep applying for funding through various federal, state and foundation opportunities. Working together, we can create a brighter future.
Andy Brack is president and chairman of the Center for a Better South, which received a $50,000 Promise Zone grant in August from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help build capacity in the Promise Zone.