Woodford County

Tom Eblen: Finding a community's strengths

VERSAILLES — Woodford County, like a lot of places, is struggling to adapt to a changing economy. How can people there create a more prosperous future while protecting their community's beauty and quality of life?

Those were the big questions posed one morning earlier this month when community activist Deborah Knittel and the Woodford Coalition, a citizens group, invited more than 100 local leaders to meet in a church's fellowship hall.

The facilitator was Doug Henton, a California-based consultant who has helped more than 40 communities across the country deal successfully with these issues over the past three decades.

Henton is also a native of Woodford County, where his family has lived for two centuries.

The points Henton made, the questions he raised and the research and further discussions he suggested could help other Kentucky communities that are struggling with these issues. In other words, every community.

To an outsider, Woodford County would seem an unlikely place for anxiety. It ranks first among Kentucky counties in per-capita income, is strategically located between Lexington and Frankfort and has some of the Bluegrass's most beautiful countryside.

But income statistics may be skewed by wealthy landowners. The Thoroughbred industry is in a slump. Tobacco farming is all but gone, and many of the factories that once gave Woodford County workers a middle-class lifestyle have closed. Conflict over growth, development and land-use planning has created deep divisions.

Henton, CEO of Collaborative Economics of San Mateo, Calif., didn't come home with all of the answers. What he offered were tips for analyzing a community's strengths, weaknesses and opportunities, with the goal of creating a shared vision for growth.

Long-term economic development isn't about cheap labor and tax breaks, Henton said. It is about regional collaboration, productivity and continuous innovation. It is about having infrastructure, a skilled workforce and sufficient economic and social capital.

"It's not just about having assets, but creating networks of people who can make the best use of those assets," he said. "It's not just the ingredients, it's the recipe."

It also is about quality of life, a hard-to-define combination of environment, resources and social conditions such as inclusiveness. "Economic development today is about where people want to live," he said. "You can't have a strong economy without a good community."

Henton advised Woodford County leaders to assess weaknesses they need to fix and unique strengths — "economic clusters" — they can build on and market to bring money in from elsewhere.

He talked about his work with Sonoma County, Calif., in the early 1980s, which leveraged its wine industry for more tourism and used its beauty and quality of life to attract professionals who could live wherever they chose.

The Woodford County folks quickly got the point: horses, bourbon, scenic beauty, good quality of life. Other assets to build on: good roads, attractive downtowns in Versailles and Midway and educational assets such as Midway College. They even started reeling off names of people who do business all over the world but choose to live in Woodford County.

The discussion also identified things the county lacks: public transportation, motels, a movie theater, enough affordable housing for low-wage workers.

Then talk turned to deeper concerns: fragmented local governments that don't cooperate enough, a lack of support for entrepreneurs, friction over land-use planning and old debates over private property rights vs. public good.

The people, seated at round tables, were asked to talk among themselves to identify Woodford County's strengths and weaknesses. As each table reported, you could hear the buzz: what some thought of as strengths, others saw as weaknesses.

As one table's representative discussed social issues, Larry Blackford, who was there representing a local African-American group, rolled his eyes and leaned over to me. "They're in denial," he said.

Nothing was resolved, but I had the sense that this sort of frank and open discussion doesn't happen very often.

"We need to listen to each other," said Dan Rosenberg, a Thoroughbred industry consultant. "It's not a situation of you're right and you're wrong. We all have different perspectives."

Henton urged the group to keep meeting, identify champions to take on specific issues and visualize what they hope to achieve. "It's about people and relationships," he said. "The critical point in all of this is trying to define goals for a shared future."

It was a good first step. But without diverse leadership and buy-in, Knittel fears, the effort could fizzle. "I think good things will come out of this," she said. "Any conversation is better than the one we haven't had."

For any Kentucky community wanting a brighter future, that's good advice.