One of the most shameful and enduring problems in South Carolina is the huge gap between the prosperous/urban and poor/rural areas of our state. Most of these poor/rural counties lie along Interstate 95. It has been dubbed The Corridor of Shame — and it is.
But some recent big news offers some real, long-term hope for the southern part of the corridor — it’s called the Promise Zone.
To quote from its new website, scpromisezone.org: In January 2013, the Obama Administration announced a new federal Promise Zone designation program to help 20 high-poverty communities across the nation gain new tools and resources to tap into grant monies and other resources to create jobs, increase economic activity, improve educational opportunities and reduce violent crime and generally improve the quality of life.
In 2014, a group of 28 South Carolina nonprofit, government and business leaders, working with Andy Brack and the Center for a Better South, identified the potential that a Promise Zone designation could have for counties at the southern tip of the state that have severe poverty and huge economic challenges. After discussions with key leaders, Danny Black and the Southern Carolina Regional Development Alliance agreed to take the lead in developing an application to try to win a Promise Zone designation.
In April, the group was notified that it had received the official Promise Zone designation. Our zone will be one of only two Promise Zones chosen in a rural area. (Full disclosure: I work with EnvisionSC, a new initiative to make South Carolina “world-class and globally connected” and we are one of the partner organizations supporting the Promise Zone.)
The six S.C. Promise Zone counties are Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper counties – home to more than 90,000 South Carolinians. In these counties, 28 percent live in poverty and the median household income is $32,705, or 25 percent less than South Carolina’s income level and 45 percent less than the United States average.
As one would expect, educational attainment and employment rates are also low among residents and quality affordable housing is very scarce.
The way the program works is that the leadership of the Promise Zone will craft a long-term strategic plan to develop the area, and then organizations within the zone can apply for federal funding for special projects and receive preferential treatment for their grant application.
In short, most any community group in the zone that applies for federal grants to support its work goes to the head of the line. And, this special treatment lasts for 10 years, long enough to really begin to have a positive impact.
Now, some will say that this is just another “government giveaway” and the counties will be overrun by folks from Washington saying “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.”
It doesn’t work that way. It’s about supporting local people who are struggling mightily to improve their communities and need all the help they can get — from anywhere they can get it.
Just one example is Wilbur Cave. He’s a friend of mine and he’s a superhero. Though he doesn’t wear a cape and a mask, he’s still a real live hero.
Wilbur is from Allendale County, one of the poorest of these poor counties. He grew up there, did well and got himself elected to the S.C. Legislature. But unlike so many folks who go to Columbia and never come home, Wilbur did come home. Instead of staying in the “big city” with all the opportunities, he went back to Allendale and went to work to try and improve the lives of the people he grew up with.
To me, that makes him a superhero.
In 1998, he started Allendale County ALIVE, Inc., a nonprofit community development corporation. It is a grassroots organization that brought together residents concerned with what was seen as a general decline in the county. They decided to initially focus on providing affordable housing and incubating small business and then they went to work on a whole host of other activities to provide jobs and stimulate economic development.
One day I asked Wilbur what they needed most; his answer was short and simple. He said “everything.” And indeed they do.
The Promise Zone counties need everything from anyone at any time because for so long, they got nothing. For generations, they have been ignored, abused, bypassed, discriminated against and simply treated shamefully, i.e. the Corridor of Shame.
But despite it all, there are plenty of heroes like Wilbur who are committed and work to improve their communities every day. There are literally several hundred heroes in the zone. I know because I’ve seen them and talked with lots of them. Last month, the Promise Zone leaders held community meetings in each of the five counties and these local heroes came out to learn more about the zone and how they can get involved.
Every one of them is a hero because despite it all, they are still hopeful with big ideas and dreams for their counties and their children. And most of all, they are willing to work to make their hopes and dreams become reality. That’s what heroes do.
Will the Promise Zone project turn the Corridor of Shame in to the Corridor of Pride? Maybe — at least they are making a good start.
At a time when it’s so popular for politicians to berate the federal government and ridicule its efforts to do anything, the Promise Zone offers some real hope.
I’m not betting on the federal government, but I’m betting on Wilbur — and the dozens of other local heroes who are working day in and day out to build the Corridor of Pride.
God bless ‘em.
Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the S.C. New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley. Email him at email@example.com.