LANCASTER — When Mine Shields LLC announced April 7 that it would put a manufacturing plant here, it was the latest in a string of positive developments for the Garrard County seat.
Even Gov. Steve Beshear, who attended the announcement ceremony, was impressed when Nathan Mick, the county's economic development director, read a list of new businesses and construction projects that have come or are planned.
"I don't know of any county that has more going on right now to the positive than Lancaster and Garrard County," Beshear said.
The state is widening a 5-mile section of U.S. 27 from Camp Nelson to a point just south of Ky. 34. There's the new $35 million Garrard County High School on Lancaster's southern side, a judicial center, a health care center, the renovations of the Grand Theater and Garrard County Public Library, and then on April 7, Mine Shields announced it would make mine refuge chambers in a Lancaster building that was once headquarters for the Christian Appalachian Project, a charity organization.
Mine Shields CEO Connie Hendren said the company considered seven other communities in which to put its plant. But none was as helpful or as persistent as officials in Lancaster and Garrard County.
"I've just never met a group of people like them," Hendren said. Rather than fight against one another, "they're all for one and one for all."
Johnathan Gay, director of Morehead State University's Innovation Center in West Liberty, has talked with Garrard officials about various projects. He said Garrard is growing because of good teamwork among officials, and that can be an example to communities elsewhere.
"They've really put their heads together and they've pursued the right kind of strategies, and they've been able to do so without any rancor or bickering, at least that I can see," Gay said.
"A lot of communities pursue the wrong strategy. They're still chasing smokestacks or the next Toyota or the next mini-Toyota. What Garrard County has done, rather adroitly, is try to build on their existing assets as opposed to bring in a large factory that's already operating in Ohio or Michigan and plop it down in the middle of Garrard County in exchange for millions of dollars in tax abatements.
"They have really pursued an organic, bootstrapping strategy that I think other communities should pursue."
Gay points to the Grand Theater project as an example of taking an existing asset and trying to turn it into a destination. Another example is the county's goal to build a replica slave cabin. Local lore and a historic marker claim that Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, visited a plantation between Lancaster and Paint Lick before writing the biggest-selling book of the 19th century.
The activity in Garrard is especially notable for a small, rural county of 17,000 residents that remained stagnant for years. No new plants had opened in Lancaster, a city of 4,400, since the early 1990s. A nearly 32,000-square-foot spec building in a local industrial park has remained vacant since it was built in 1997.
The county never had a full-time economic development director until 2007, when Mick, 33, was hired. A Centre College graduate and former deputy chief of staff to Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., Mick brought energy and enthusiasm to the job.
Hendren, the Mine Shields CEO, said Mick was "a wealth of knowledge" about incentive programs. Hendren told the people gathered at the announcement ceremony that if Kentucky "could clone Nathan Mick" in the other 119 counties, there would be a greater influx of new jobs in the state "than you would have had in the last 10 years."
As an outsider coming into the community, Mick said he could see the potential for Lancaster and the county.
"If I'm the sales person for Garrard County, you have to believe in what you're selling, and I do wholeheartedly," he said. Capitalizing on that potential with few funds for marketing required Mick to use his imagination.
He enlisted a local student to shoot a video that features residents touting the community. The video, produced for less than $400, became one of the top 15 travel and events videos when it debuted on YouTube in October.
Mick also enlisted a friend's help to send information about that empty industrial-park spec building to 10,000 e-mail addresses. That resulted in 28 inquiries, which in turn led to some people flying in from other states to take a look, Mick said.
In addition, Garrard has some of the lowest tax rates in the state, which is a plus for businesses looking to save what they can in an economy fraught with mixed signals.
"If you can eliminate overhead for businesses ... then you're on the ground floor for investment," Mick said.
In his first year on the job, Mick's $52,000 salary was paid by the local industrial authority, and has since been paid by the Garrard County Fiscal Court through money it saved by merging its 911 center with neighboring Lincoln County, and savings in other programs.
Meanwhile, Garrard has seen revenue growth as more small businesses have opened. Receipts from occupational taxes — taxes on earnings based on where people work, not where they live — have fallen in many communities across the country because of jobs lost during the recession. But revenue from those taxes in Garrard has increased from $589,245 in 2007 to $624,442 in 2008 to $691,271 in 2009.
"The first two quarters of this fiscal year, we've had the strongest first two quarters since going back to 2006," said Judge-Executive John Wilson, 34. Total receipts of occupational tax for those two quarters was $304,530, up nearly 4 percent from the same period in the previous fiscal year.
Of course, on the march toward growth, there have been stumbles and disappointments. An effort to attract a new stockyards on the south side of Lancaster last year met resistance and protest from subdivision residents nearby.
A one-year option that the Loy family of Russell County had to buy 9 acres on U.S. 27 has expired. But Darrell Loy, a partner in the company, said he is still interested in locating in Garrard County if he can find a larger tract.
In 2008, Mick and others pushed for a local-option election in which residents voted in favor of the legal sale of alcohol in package stores and restaurants. That election came under scrutiny by the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, whose board recommended fines against five individuals for "unknowingly" violating election law.
In 2008, Lancaster's only full-service grocery closed, and that forced residents to go to Wal-Mart in Stanford, 8 miles south of Lancaster, or elsewhere. Lancaster is still without a bigger food retailer, but Wilson and Mick said they are trying to find someone to fill the void.
In 2007, state officials announced that a new state park that might include a lodge to accommodate overnight guests was coming to northern Garrard County, near the limestone cliffs of the Kentucky River. But Mick and Wilson said the sour economy stalled that project, although the state still owns 90 acres west of U.S. 27.
There is no countywide planning and zoning in Garrard, which is the 12th fastest-growing county in the state, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates released in March. Mick said the lack of zoning has not been a deterrent to attracting business and industry.
Meanwhile, about 67 percent of the county's work force continues to commute to jobs outside Garrard County. The 2008 average weekly wage in Garrard was $528, nearly $200 less than the state average and nearly $350 less than the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Despite these obstacles, there is a sense that the community is doing what it can to turn things around. That might be one reason Wilson has no opposition in the May primary or November general election.
Barry Peel, a retired television reporter who ran against Wilson for judge-executive in the May 2006 Republican primary, said he would give local leaders a B for their efforts to attract jobs and new investment. Peel said he would prefer to see more emphasis on attracting light industrial jobs, like those that will be brought with Mine Shields.
"I have no problem with a man having a job building that judicial center. That's good," Peel said. "But after it's built, it's built; he's going to go on somewhere else. A light industrial base will give you jobs year-round."
Restaurant owners David and Wanda Anderson thought the local economy was good enough to open a second location. The new place that opened in January a block off Lancaster's square is called Wajaba's Too! (The unusual name comes from the first two letters of the names of Wanda and daughters Jaime and Barbie.)
"Any time you improve buildings and you make things look nicer and you employ local people, it's all a positive thing," Anderson said.