Kentucky Highlands: 45 years of investment, innovation

This rendering shows an example of a new generation of relatively low-cost, energy-efficient homes that will be built by a Wayne County factory better known for building houseboats.
This rendering shows an example of a new generation of relatively low-cost, energy-efficient homes that will be built by a Wayne County factory better known for building houseboats.

Turning 45 is a time to reflect on where you've been, the people you've met along the way and what you want to accomplish in the future.

Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation, formed in Southeastern Kentucky during the War on Poverty in 1968, has helped create more than 18,000 jobs and provided more than 625 businesses with more than $275 million in financing.

In turn, those companies have produced goods and services valued at $6.5 billion, paid more than $2.1 billion in salaries and wages; and generated an estimated $400 million in tax revenue.

One of the keys to this success has been access to a variety of capital — from forming two regional equity firms to leveraging Small Business Administration and USDA funding to attracting private investment from top corporations such as Goldman Sachs and Starbucks.

These sources of funding have helped attract entrepreneurs who create and retain long-term employment.

Take J.C. Egnew, a former NASA engineer who moved to Kentucky and opened the first manufacturing plant ever to locate in McCreary County. Outdoor Venture Corporation in Stearns is going strong with 250 employees.

Egnew, who has worked with KHIC since the company began more than 40 years ago, has faced challenges from market changes and low-cost global imports. He has continued to diversify and remake his business.

Another large source of investment occurred in 1994, when KHIC was named as the administrator to one of only three rural federal empowerment zones in the country. The result was 3,600 new jobs and $40 million in investments, some of which continues to be reinvested long after the 10-year designation ended.

A second key is technical assistance, a crucial component to launching and sustaining a successful business. Always a hallmark of Kentucky Highlands, technical assistance has expanded through the Kentucky Highlands Innovation Center, a business accelerator that opened in 2011 with 9,600 square feet of product development, office and laboratory space for area entrepreneurs.

One-on-one training and interactive workshops also are available at the center, which is one of only 13 sites designated as part of Kentucky's Innovation Network.

The Kentucky Rural Health Information Technology Network is housed at the business accelerator. Jeff Campbell runs the nonprofit, which helps health-care providers leverage technology to improve services for the medically underserved in rural Kentucky. He credits the accelerator for assisting with his business plan and connecting him to professionals such as a patent attorney and a graphic designer.

The third source of success is partnerships. Almost every deal involves other economic development organizations and local lenders. These collaborations help spread the risk, bring additional expertise to the table and augment funding options.

For example, Stronger Economies Together is a USDA Rural Development program to expand the biomedical and life science industries. More than a dozen partners have worked together to strategize and invest more than $14 million in health-care projects ranging from a small surgical practice to a major hospital expansion.

Partnerships also have been vital to KHIC entering the affordable housing market five years ago. We have built 33 houses and began our Houseboat to Energy Efficient Residences.

This collaboration among KHIC, the University of Kentucky and the region's houseboat manufacturers is producing energy-efficient houses while helping bring high-skill workers back to employment in the houseboat industry. State and federal funding also have served an important role.

Stardust Cruisers and its chairman, Bruce Chesnut, have been involved in the planning and manufacturing of the HBEER homes. Since the effort began in 2009, the number of full-time employees at Stardust has more than quadrupled. Stardust also improved the energy efficiency of its houseboats and is one of the few houseboat manufacturers exporting new products.

As we move forward, Kentucky Highlands will continue to focus on equity and micro-equity funding, support of small businesses and entrepreneurs as well as energy-efficient affordable homes.

The future will bring increased challenges as we work to respond to the economic needs of the region, which are further exacerbated by the loss of 4,200 coal jobs in our service area since 2009. The road may seem steep, but going uphill is the only way to get to the top.

Visit www.khic.org for additional information.