Woodford County has landed three significant new plants in the last 18 months. If the companies do all they’ve promised to get state incentives, they’ll bring 626 jobs and $117 million in new investment to a county better known for thoroughbreds than factories.
Some of the credit for that success is due to an unassuming former banker named John Soper, an independent contractor who works full-time to attract jobs to Versailles, Midway and Woodford County.
“It’s a problem-solving job,” Soper said. “It’s not a 9-to-5 job.”
Soper, 61, said local governments, the planning office and the Woodford school district recognize the urgency of “moving at the speed of business and not government.”
Time is money, he said, and if industrial prospects aren’t getting information they need to select a plant site quickly from Woodford authorities, then they’ll seek that information from another location in the running for the same jobs.
Soper also gives credit to Craig McAnelly, who worked part-time as executive director of the Woodford County Economic Development Authority but whose primary job is with Bluegrass Area Development District. McAnelly will retire later this year.
Among the companies that Soper and McAnelly landed, with help from state and local officials, were American Howa Kentucky, an auto parts company that will bring 54 jobs and a $13 million plant to Midway; More Than a Bakery, a cookie and cracker company that will bring 310 jobs and a $57 million plant to Versailles; and Lakeshore Learning, a school supplies distributor that will bring 262 jobs and a $47.4 million distribution facility to Midway.
Knowing what business wants
As a former bank president, Soper “knows how to work with executives in firms that are looking at a community,” said Versailles City Council member Ken Kerkhoff. “He’s good in establishing rapport. He’s able to negotiate with them and he has a knowledge of land acquisition and infrastructure requirements.”
“John understands what new companies are looking for,” said Greg Janzow, chief operating officer for Richmond Baking, the Indiana-based parent company for More Than a Bakery. “His business background and his familiarity with the area allows him to ... understand if an opportunity is going to work out or not.”
Soper was hired as a full-time contractor about a year ago. Woodford Fiscal Court and the cities of Versailles and Midway chip in to pay his annual salary of more than $68,000.
“If he had not been hired full time, would some of these (plant announcements) have happened? Probably,” Kerkhoff said. But he said Soper “was significantly involved to make sure that happened.”
For years, Woodford County has had one of the lowest monthly unemployment rates among Kentucky’s 120 counties. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis says the rate was as low as 1.1 percent in December 1999; it’s about 3.5 percent now. What isn’t stated in the unemployment figures is that 20 percent of the people living in Versailles earn less than the poverty level.
“I have a real empathy for trying to get people of lesser means an opportunity,” Soper said. “What we’re doing gives people an opportunity to better themselves with new jobs.”
Advocating for workers
Soper said that’s why he wrote a commentary printed in the Versailles and Lexington newspapers last year criticizing individuals and groups who filed suit to reverse an annexation of 336 acres of the Edgewood Farm on U.S. 60 east of Versailles. The farm would be developed for residential and commercial uses, would provide a site for a new hospital and would include some acreage for industrial land. The litigation is still pending in court.
In the column, Soper wrote “Woodford County’s landed gentry … attempt to deny the peasants better health care as well as denying the serfs a means to better their agricultural subsistence.”
The column drew the ire of some readers, but Soper said he received an overwhelmingly positive response from others across the state. The episode illustrates that economic development is not an easy task in Woodford County, where people are protective of greenspace and the agricultural landscape.
One reason for opposition to the annexation is that it would expand the urban service boundary of Versailles and take farmland out of production. Soper counters that the annexation could help local farmers.
Versailles has run out of land zoned for industrial purposes, Soper argues, and the annexation would set aside more than 100 acres for that purpose. Local farmers are interested in growing wheat for the bakery, but without the addition of land near the new plant, that idea might not come to fruition.
“If you truly want to save the farmland, you’ve got to save the farmer,” Soper said.
Soper grew up on a family farm that raised tobacco and cattle in Nicholas County. His mother was a homemaker and his father worked for the Federal Crop Insurance Corp. Soper raised a burley tobacco crop to save money for school. He played football in high school and at Centre College in Danville.
“I was the second-leading scorer on a record-setting team in Nicholas County that lost 28 games in a row,” he said. “Then I went to Centre College and played on a team that went 0-9.”
After two years at Centre, Soper transferred to the University of Kentucky. In the summers he worked for Garvice Kincaid’s bank management company. Soper would go from bank to bank transferring loan files onto computers, and he was able to see different management styles at work among CEOs.
Later he worked for Elmer Whitaker (founder of Whitaker Bank) and James Lawrence “Jim” Rose, two businessmen from the Eastern Kentucky coalfields who built their own banking empires. Soper later worked for banks in Bourbon County and Lexington, and was a bank president in Danville.
In 1998, Soper and Will Parks started their own bank, Citizens Commerce National, in Versailles. The bank grew in assets but, as happened with many lenders during the 2008 recession, lost money because of problem loans. Soper resigned as president in 2010.
Four years later, the U.S. Comptroller of the Currency issued a consent order in which Soper agreed to pay a $25,000 civil penalty as punishment for, among other things, exposing the bank to “excessive risk.”
“We were a construction lender and we were overly aggressive and we had issues,” Soper said. “The regulators, for whatever reason, they wanted somebody’s head and they came after mine. …It didn’t kill me. I moved on. It made me stronger.”
He went to work for Morgan Stanley as a broker and worked for Bank of Lexington. Rita, his wife of 30 years, is a licensed clinical social worker who has a private practice.
Asked if he sees his current work as redemption, Soper said, “I don’t like the word redemption because I don’t think I have anything to redeem myself from. But I like what I’m doing.”
Soper said the $1.3 billion investment announced April 10 for Toyota’s Georgetown plant could bring more auto-related companies to Midway Station, the industrial park near that city. Another prospect related to ag tourism is looking at Woodford, but Soper said he can’t reveal any other details about that.
The budget for the Woodford County Economic Development Authority and his salary amount to less than $85,000 a year, Soper said.
This year, he said, “We’ll create $815,000 in payroll tax revenue alone. We’ll create about another $1 million going to the schools. We’re not spending a whole lot of money to get a whole lot of bang for our buck.”