At a time when there's a lot of mean talk about government's role in regard to business, Kentucky has produced a story that illustrates the benefits of linking forward-thinking private investors with enlightened public assistance.
Herald-Leader reporter Bill Estep recounted the cooperative efforts of a Somerset luxury boat company, Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp. and the University of Kentucky School of Design to design and produce affordable, efficient, livable homes on the production lines used to build luxury boats.
Three batches of federal money — $125,000 each to Monticello and Whitley County to build prototypes of the houses and $1 million from the Appalachian Regional Commission — helped in the effort.
The partners, and the federal government, had their individual goals, but also shared one big one: To produce a 1,000 square foot house with two bedrooms that cost $100,000 or less, including land, could be trucked to the site, assembled quickly and could be heated and cooled for $1 a day.
And they wanted to get as many materials as possible from Kentucky.
"It was a very tall order," Jerry Rickett, president and chief executive officer of Kentucky Highlands, told Estep.
Kentucky Highlands, which works to improve the economy in southeastern Kentucky, had its own goals, too. They included putting people back to work, both through building homes and creating business for suppliers. Rickett also had his eye on producing more efficient housing to replace mobile homes and aging traditional houses that suck badly needed dollars out of the pockets of their poor residents because they are so costly to heat.
For the School of Design, the project offered a very practical exercise in meshing design with cost and efficiency considerations. The 50 students and teachers who worked on the project tracked down materials, calculated the costs and confronted the design challenge of getting everything into that 1,000 square feet and creating a pleasant place to live.
For investors in Stardust Cruisers, one of the Somerset-area boat building companies that has idled production and laid off workers as the recession dried up demand for luxury boats, a primary goal certainly was to get back to making something that can make money.
So, why did the federal government need to be involved?
Without government investment, the private businesses would have had difficulty finding either the time or resources to produce prototypes before the first house had been sold. And the project can be replicated across the country.
From a public perspective, the money invested will be well-spent if citizens have access to affordable, highly efficient, well-designed homes, people are put back to work and orders for Kentucky products increase.
Not every federal dollar is well spent, but many are. In the rush to slash public funding, we'd do well to pause and consider the potential benefits of public/private partnerships like this one.