FRANKFORT — A group of the state's top business and education leaders hope to have an economic development plan that would improve advanced manufacturing and increase exports from Lexington and Louisville by next October.
The group, called the Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement, or BEAM, is the brainchild of Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray.
On Monday, the mayors announced that the group's 21-member board includes the heads of some of the state's largest employers, such as Lexmark International, Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky, GE Appliances and Lighting, and Tempur-Pedic International. University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto and University of Louisville President Jim Ramsey also sit on the board.
During its inaugural meeting at the Kentucky History Center in Frankfort, the group heard from the Brookings Institution, a Washington D.C.-based think tank that is helping the group develop a plan to improve a 22-county area's position as a leader in advanced manufacturing.
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With heavyweights such as GE, Ford, Toyota and Lexmark, the area is already positioned to be a leader in advanced manufacturing, Fischer said in his opening comments. But to compete globally, Louisville and Lexington must combine resources, Fischer and Gray said.
The Louisville-Lexington area was one of a few chosen by the Brookings Institution to help craft an economic development plan. Amy Liu, of Brookings, told the group that the 22-county-area — which includes much of Central Kentucky and three southern Indiana counties — makes up 60 percent of Kentucky's tax base.
Although the state's unemployment rate has remained near 10 percent since 2008 and median household income was down more than 10 percent in Lexington and Louisville in 2010, many business leaders said Monday that they can't find enough skilled workers to fill open jobs.
"Where are they?" asked Rena L. Sharpe, vice president of North American Operations for Westport Axle Corp, a company owned by a Brazilian firm.
Sharpe said the company has invested more than $10 million in a Louisville manufacturing facility but is having a hard time finding general labor and engineers to fill available positions.
The group will develop far more than just a strategy, which is where most economic development plans stop, Liu said. It will identify a specific intervention — such as increasing the skilled work force — and develop goals and a matrix to determine whether they have met those goals.
In addition to quarterly meetings, board Chairman Jim Host said there will be several "working group" meetings.
The group will likely tour UK's and U of L's engineering schools. They also will look at what other countries — such as Germany — have done to align their business, education and government entities to ensure market domination, Host said.
The next meeting of the board will be in March.
The BEAM effort will be funded with $250,000 in private contributions, most from businesses. Brookings will donate about $750,000 in research, strategic and other services. The Bloomberg Foundation of New York gave Louisville $4.8 million to improve city government, some of which will go into the BEAM initiative in an effort to increase the area's export capacity.