It's always welcome news when Lexington officials announce a business is expanding or locating in our community. But it's even better, as has happened three times recently — with iHigh, Big Ass Fans and A&W — when the news is about a company with strong local ties.
The three have very different histories and products, but each represents something essential about economic development and growth.
Start with iHigh. Cox Media Group just bought a 20 percent share for $11.7 million, valuing the company founded in 1999 at about $60 million.
iHigh began as a spinoff of Host Communications, the local college sports marketing company, with the idea of using a relatively new phenomenon, the Internet, to expand access to information about high school sports.
The company struggled through some tough times but has thrived as technology enabled it to grow into the host site for thousands of high-school sports teams and other youth activites. Teams can post statistics, photos, videos, even live-stream games on iHigh, linking them with fans, family members and other teams around the globe.
iHigh has expanded into event marketing and promotion. Recently, through a partnership with another local growth engine, iHigh has begun hosting the Alltech Ag Network.
Another company founded locally in 1999, Big Ass Fans (original name: The High Volume Low Speed Fan Company; which do you think is catchier?), took the venerable ceiling fan to a whole new level and size, designing and manufacturing fans as large as 24 feet in diameter for industrial, agricultural, commercial and residential customers.
Big Ass Fans now has 65,000 fans installed worldwide and is spread out across three locations in town. Tuesday's announcement was of plans to invest $8 million here for a new headquarters. A second phase, not yet scheduled. will involve a larger expansion. The two are expected to add 150 jobs in the next six years.
And there's A&W. Although the fast-food company didn't originate in Lexington, when the ribbon was cut at its new headquarters earlier this month it was something of a homecoming. A&W was based in Lexington as part of Yorkshire Brands before it was purchased by Yum! Brands in Louisville. A group headed by Kevin Bazner of Lexington bought the brand from Yum late last year and brought it back, with 30 jobs and an investment of almost $1.9 million.
So much of economic development talk is about landing the big fish, the one that will provide hundreds of jobs instantly. No one will argue against that but it's a high risk/high reward strategy that also means hundreds of jobs can move at a blow.
These stories reinforce the potential for a diverse, stable and long-term employment base growing out of entrepreneurs and investors locally.
Congratulations to the people who developed and invested in these three. Thanks for staying in or coming back to Lexington.
They've given us another lesson in the importance of educating a work force that can innovate, design and market in a competitive world; and of creating a community where people who have choices want to live.