At the Kentucky Long-Term Policy Research Center's conference last month, people talked about how much more economic progress this state could make if cities and their surrounding counties worked together.
Jim Host thinks they're right — but that they're thinking too small. That's no surprise; few Kentuckians think as big as Host.
The Ashland native turned college sports marketing into a business empire and headed the Commerce Cabinet and state parks system. Host, 71, was the first chairman of the Alltech FEI 2010 World Equestrian Games before stepping down to focus on building a new sports arena in downtown Louisville.
Host is a longtime Lexington resident who spends much of his time in Louisville. He said his experience has convinced him Kentucky will never achieve its full potential until its two biggest cities get beyond their rivalries and develop a close economic partnership with each other and the counties between them.
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"Kentucky's (economic) capital is between Lexington and Louisville," Host said. "The limited resources of this state can't afford for there not to be cooperation."
America's economy is experiencing fundamental change, with such longtime engines as California and Florida losing their luster. Host thinks that could be an opportunity for Kentucky.
Kentucky's central location makes it ideal for companies such as Amazon.com, which has huge warehouses in Lexington and Campbellsville, and United Parcel Service, whose air freight hub is in Louisville.
Other industries — including Toyota, at Georgetown — have grown up between the two largest cities. Harley Davidson is considering Shelby County as the site for a 1,000-employee plant.
Many people whose jobs give them the flexibility to live anywhere have come to or stayed in Kentucky because it has a mix of city amenities, picturesque small towns and rural areas with natural beauty and recreation opportunities.
"How many people do you know who could afford to live anywhere, but they choose to live here?" Host asked.
States such as North Carolina, California and Minnesota have spurred economic development by forging close ties among their cities and universities.
Kentucky is catching on.
Commerce Lexington and Greater Louisville Inc. will make their first joint city visit in May, to Pittsburgh. Officials have said they see the trip as a step toward closer economic cooperation.
The 2010 World Equestrian Games are a great opportunity for Lexington to work with Louisville to showcase the larger region's assets and potential. "Many top CEOs will come to the Games, and we won't even know they're here," Host said.
Universities have huge potential to spur economic development, and Kentucky can no longer afford for the universities of Kentucky and Louisville to not be joined at the hip, Host said.
"There's a lot more going on than people realize," University of Kentucky President Lee T. Todd Jr. said when asked about that. A UK spokesman said there are 54 joint research projects, worth $24.4 million, between UK and U of L faculty.
But Host thinks there could be much more coordination and sharing of resources. He noted the two universities' boards of trustees have never met together — at least not in anyone's memory.
Part of the challenge, Host said, will be for Lexington and Louisville to convince the rest of the state that what's good for them is good for everyone. That's because infrastructure investment and economic development in the cities benefits the entire state through commuter jobs, spinoff industries and shared tax revenues.
"This is not to be in competition with the rest of the state, but to provide revenue for the rest of the state," Host said.
Fayette and Jefferson counties together accounted for 22.5 percent of state real and tangible personal property tax receipts during fiscal 2009, according to the Revenue Cabinet, which doesn't track sales tax collections by county.
The cultural and psychological distance between Lexington and Louisville has always been much greater than the 75 miles that separate them. A lot of that comes down to Wildcat blue and Cardinal red.
"It's part of what we grew up with here — we don't mess with U of L because they're our arch-enemy," said Host, a huge sports fan who once played baseball for UK and admits to bleeding blue. "That can be the case in athletics, but it can't be the case any longer in academics."
The bottom line is that Lexington and Louisville must become partners instead of rivals, and the rest of Kentucky must realize that as the economies of those cities go, so goes the rest of the state.
"Sometimes a bad economy causes things to be thought through better," Host said. "Kentucky is a state with limited resources; we have to focus on how we can make one plus one equal four."