The Herald-Leader's Aug. 21 editorial contains a recognition that because of the financial decline of the Thoroughbred horse industry in Central Kentucky, alternative uses must be found for some farmland. The demise of tobacco farming has also freed up agricultural land. The editorial suggests that creating value-added opportunities for farmers "will require re-ordering economic-development thinking so that promoting agriculture is on the same level as attracting other businesses."
The fallacy of the editorial's logic is that current economic development thinking already strongly favors continued agricultural uses of Fayette County's land outside the Urban Services Area over other uses, such as possibly serving as a site for a major new manufacturing facility, like the IBM typewriter division (now Lexmark, the area's second-largest private employer), which located here in the 1950s.
While more than half of Fayette County's land is comprised of farms, the horse industry generates less than 5 percent of the area's annual economic activity. Other land uses, such as the main campus and medical center at the University of Kentucky generate more economic activity per year than all the Thoroughbred horse farms in Fayette County have over the past 50 years.
UK is Fayette's largest public employer, and St. Joseph Healthcare System is its largest private employer.
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Under current law, land outside the Urban Services Area can be developed for residential use only in minimum tracts of 40 acres (raised from 10 acres in 1999), which effectively prevents the use of farmland to develop residential subdivisions or shopping centers.
Although the Urban County Government cannot fully fund its police and firefighter pension funds, it floated a bond issue (to be repaid by tax revenues) and has spent millions of dollars to preserve farmland through the Purchase of Development Rights program. Once restricted by easement under the PDR program, this land can never be used for any purpose other than agriculture.
Money now spent on the PDR program could be more effectively used to attract businesses and industry, which would generate many more jobs, at higher average wages, than are generated by agriculture. Too many of the businesses recently attracted to the area offer jobs paying, on average, only about $10 per hour.
Lexington is among the top 10 cities in America in educational attainment of its work force, with 38 percent of adults possessing at least a bachelor's degree, compared with the national average of 26 percent. This well-educated work force is potentially a draw for corporations considering locating here. But it is not clear, given current land-use and development priorities, that such potential can ever be achieved.
Most agricultural jobs do not require the available level of highly educated employees and do not pay as much as manufacturing jobs, such as those generated by Toyota's manufacturing facility in Scott County. Many farm workers are paid only $7.50 to $12 an hour. Those 6,500-plus manufacturing jobs in Scott County pay, on average, about $60,000 a year, plus benefits.
About 1984, city officials rebuffed the interest of Saturn in building an 800-acre manufacturing facility that would have generated 18,000 jobs because the only land that could have been used was outside the Urban Services Area. Saturn instead built in Tennessee. Even the recently developed Coldstream Research Park could not accommodate a major manufacturer like Toyota or Saturn.
The people of Fayette County have to make fundamental choices about what is most important for this area's future, both in terms of using and developing farmland and economic development that will benefit the most people. It does not make economic sense — particularly considering our large, highly educated work force — never to develop farmland for corporate or manufacturing uses.
The Toyota plant and other manufacturing facilities built in Scott County have not destroyed the agrarian character of that county. There are thousands of acres of farmland in Fayette County. As the editorial suggests, there should be balance between finding new, value-added agricultural uses and considering business and manufacturing uses of that same land.
The reordering of economic-development thinking that must occur to achieve that balance, however, requires a shift toward openness to using some land for corporate and manufacturing uses, instead of other agricultural uses.