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President Barack Obama has made a promise to the residents of Southeast Kentucky that the federal government will help that region's economy recover.

On Thursday, the president announced eight counties in southeastern Kentucky will be federally designated as "Promise Zones."

The counties include Bell, Clay, Whitley, Harlan, Leslie, Letcher, Perry and Knox counties. The four other promise zones are located in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Antonio and in the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma.

As a Promise Zone, Southeast Kentucky will get preferential treatment from the federal government whenever it applies for federal grant programs.

More Information: The "Promise Zone" program

Federal employees will also work side-by side with residents in Kentucky to achieve the goals set forth by local governments.

According to Norman Cornelius of the Bell Whitley Community Action Agency, in recent years more people in Southeast Kentucky have been in need of assistance.

"It's just gotten worse and we want to help our families who are struggling here to live a better lifestyle," he said.

The eight counties in the Promise Zone all have an unemployment rate higher than the national average.

Louisville Courier Journal: Interactive Kentucky "Promise Zone" Map

Cornelius said the community is glad politicians in Washington have taken an interest in their region.

"We're just excited about the possibilities," he said.

But, Bell County Judge Executive Albey Brock said being a Promise Zone is bittersweet.

"It's bitter in that the federal government and the EPA have placed us in this situation where our unemployment's high," he said.

Brock blames the Environmental Protection Agency for placing too many regulations on the local coal economy. Eastern Kentucky produces only a third of the amount coal it did just 13 years ago.

More Information: Kentucky Quarterly Coal Report

Brock said he wants to see coal miners who lost their jobs be trained to participate in other types of work.

"To me, the greatest goal that could come of this, is that we get real incentive from the private sector to invest in our region," he said.

The Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation pursued the Promise Zone designation with the help of the University of Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky University, Berea College and local community colleges.

KHIC President Jerry Rickett said over the next four months, local governments will come up with a plan as to how best take advantage of the Promise Zone designation.

"We put together a sort of all hands on deck strategy," Rickett said.

He said the bi-partisan climate in Kentucky helped as well.Kentucky Governor and Democrat Steve Beshear has partnered with Republican House Representative Hal Rogers in Shaping Our Appalachian Region (S.O.A.R.) initiative. The program wants to look at different ways to transform Southeast Kentucky.

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