Offered a deal that could have created 3,500 good jobs but ruined the beloved rural character of a corner of Bourbon County, Fiscal Court members did a remarkable thing in this money-obsessed age: They said no.
It helped that this courageous act was popular with their constituents: More than 150 people packed the courthouse Thursday night to make sure magistrates killed this risky deal, which had been sprung on them only a week earlier.
With their unanimous action, magistrates struck a blow against corporate welfare. They also set the stage for a conversation many Kentucky counties need to have: How can they grow and prosper in the 21st century without losing their identity, sacrificing their quality of life and selling their soul to multinational corporations that are here today but may be gone tomorrow?
Lockheed Martin got a huge Pentagon contract last summer to modify C-130 cargo planes for military special operations. The nation’s largest defense contractor is considering doing that work at Bluegrass Station, a military industrial park where it and its subcontractors employ 1,700 of the 2,500 workers.
Bluegrass Station, at Avon in Fayette County near the Bourbon County line, was created in 1941 as an Army post, but since 2008 has been owned and operated by the state.
This summer, state officials came to Bourbon County Judge-Executive Mike Williams with a proposal: If Bourbon County acquired 2,500 acres of farmland — likely through condemnation, because most landowners didn’t want to sell — and built an industrial park with an 8,000-foot to 10,000-foot runway and two hangars, Lockheed Martin would create 350 jobs by 2020. If the industrial park filled with other tenants, state officials projected 3,500 jobs by 2027. But Williams was sworn to secrecy.
The deal was not revealed to other magistrates, who would have had to approve the land acquisition, until a special meeting Dec. 6. Officials said Lockheed Martin needed a decision by Jan. 13.
Blindsided magistrates gave the plan an icy reception, especially Clintonville magistrate Mark Offutt, whose own farm, which had been in his wife’s family for more than a century, would have been taken.
Public reaction was swift and negative. About 200 people packed a volunteer fire hall last Saturday to express their concerns about losing land or having military aircraft buzzing their homes and farms.
Opponents, who started a “Stop the BS Expansion” Facebook page and showed up at Fiscal Court wearing white armbands, weren’t just concerned about losing land and a rural way of life. Many worried the risky deal could bankrupt the county.
The big job projections were just projections, not guarantees. Plus, surrounding roads and other infrastructure would need costly improvements. The only way the county would recoup its investment would be to sell industrial park land to Lockheed and other tenants. What if other tenants didn’t come? And what if these defense contractors decided to move elsewhere for better incentives?
Lockheed Martin is a king of corporate welfare, having gotten more than $1 billion in state and local incentives in recent years despite annual profits of about $5 billion. The company and its subcontractors at Bluegrass Station have a record of layoffs and labor disputes.
Williams was the only Fiscal Court member who thought the risk was worth it. Faced with unanimous opposition, he moved to end consideration of the deal. After the vote was taken, the crowded courtroom broke into applause.
What happens now? Lockheed could go elsewhere, or it could build a smaller runway at the 777-acre Bluegrass Station. C-130 cargo planes, a four-propeller staple of the military fleet since the 1950s, can land on much shorter runways. That was another reason some Bourbon County residents were skeptical. What else might fill their skies, rattle their homes and disturb their horses and cattle?
Several people in the courtroom audience, proud of the community’s unity, said they wish citizens would show as much interest in figuring out what kind of economic development they do want.
Bourbon County has some of Kentucky’s richest agricultural land. But is has long been the slowest-growing county around Lexington. Its population of 20,000 is only about 2,200 people more than it had in 1950. Median household income is second-lowest in the metro area. Most jobs are in manufacturing or agriculture, and many people commute to work in Lexington or other counties.
“If indeed this is not the kind of opportunity we want to take advantage of, what are we looking for?” Williams said in an interview. “Hopefully this will help our community be able to decide exactly what it is we do want.”