If Eastern Kentucky wants economic development, we can no longer wait for the phone to ring. This belief is uniting business leaders behind a regional strategy to recruit, retain and expand industry and nurture entrepreneurship.
It began two years ago, when the Pike County Chamber of Commerce unanimously voted to transition to a regional group, welcoming eight counties into the Southeast Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
The next step was to benchmark ourselves against the competition. Kentucky's Cabinet for Economic Development recognizes 15 regional economic development organizations.
In the last two and a half years, 71 percent of that cabinet's announcements of new or expanding industry have been in a county served by one of the six organizations in the accompanying chart. The cabinet made 781 announcements between January 2011 and July 2013; only 10 of them were in our eight counties.
Contrary to popular belief, this is not the state's fault. It is our region's fault for not creating and funding a system that can professionally handle the economic development process.
We keep asking, why is the economy not developing or diversifying? Does Toyota build a car and then wait for customers to call? Or do they invest in dealerships that hire a sales force, build websites, utilize signs and know their product inside out? Local tourism commissions in our eight counties have a combined budget of about $3 million. But we have no similar effort for economic development and job creation.
Thanks to leadership from many individuals over the past 50 years, the region has a solid foundation of transportation and infrastructure, the most expensive pieces of economic development. But a recent study by InSite Consulting Group confirmed that our eight counties have no written plan that sets realistic economic goals that are worked on every day. It also confirmed that our potential industrial properties and industrial parks are in dire need of attention.
The study affirmed that regionalism is the right move and laid out a blueprint to compete. The consultants recommended that we add an economic development staff; private business and industry should fund and lead this effort to champion development and implement a "One East Kentucky" brand. We think Eastern Kentucky needs three or four such organizations serving established trade markets around regional hubs.
Although such an approach has succeeded in other places, it has met some detractors here. For example, in a meeting with the consulting group, a county judge-executive claimed that the chamber was breaking the law by getting involved in economic development. We can't let local politics and turf wars hold us back any longer, if we want to create jobs that generate wealth.
Our slogan this year is: "The best way to predict the future is to create it."
Our future hinges on getting in the game and competing, by being regionally strategic and engaging our business community in a constructive, passionate debate. It also hinges on elected officials investing public money in ways that generate long-term returns, rather that appeasing constituents in the short term.
Economic Projects development Counties Full-time announcedorganization served staff Jan. '11-July '13
Commerce Lexington 8 7 107
Greater Louisville 9 17 235
Greater Owensboro 2 4 18
Northwest Ky. Forward 4 8 23
Nothern Ky. Tri-ED 3 11 97
South Central Ky. 10 7 72
Proposed One East Ky. 8 0 10