Eastern Kentucky has a wealth of timber. Yet most of it leaves Kentucky as logs or rough lumber, much of which goes to China before returning here as finished wood products.
Why aren't Kentucky companies doing more value-added processing of our great timber base and creating local jobs? What are the concerns of investors who think about building facilities in Eastern Kentucky?
Although Eastern Kentucky has a vast supply of timber, we hear worries about its long-term availability. Much timber is owned or controlled by absentee landowners and coal interests, and it is not always managed for sustainable, long-term timber production. In the recent past timber harvesting in the Daniel Boone National Forest has been limited or shut down for extended periods by environmental activist groups.
Why can't this great wood resource be managed in a consistent, long-term sustainable way? Doing this correctly will create steady jobs while improving the environment through increased carbon sequestration.
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Concerns about home-grown politics and corruption in Eastern Kentucky have killed investment opportunities for decades. While this may be improving some, there is still a long, long way to go. Pressing now are concerns about overreaching government regulations that make companies considering investment look to other areas where the situation is better.
Eastern Kentucky is full of skilled, hardworking people who can be great long-term employees. Yet concerns about the workforce's generational problems caused by long-term unemployment and poverty can scare off investors. Potential employers worry about problems of poor health (smoking, obesity, drug abuse, etc.), disability-hunting and employment fraud, as well as an often combative attitude toward employers that is a residual of historic employment issues with the coal industry. Eastern Kentucky's educational opportunities and ability to keep talent at home are often compromised from the start.
To attract investment, these problems must be addressed. It took generations for them to reach their current level; it will take a long time to improve. Yet this can be accomplished over time with new aggressive policies, incentives and penalties.
To attract new investment and create jobs we need to understand and avoid the irresponsible boondoggles of the past that led to empty industrial parks and roads to nowhere.
We need to focus on potential investors. The best of these already manage companies manufacturing products made from timber. They understand and are willing to deal with the many problems involved in running and growing manufacturing plants. We need companies willing to make large and long-term investments — not just take advantage of cheap labor and fickle government subsidies. We need to search out companies that need large volumes of good-quality, affordable timber.
We need to focus on finding investors more than just jobs — the jobs will come if the investments are made.
Most of these companies are not the corporate "fat cats" that some local media obsess upon, but rather medium-sized, family-owned companies whose primary concern is the long-term well-being of their employees. There is no need to finance these companies or give them handouts — just offer some tax abatements along with a real commitment to working with them instead of threatening their existence through destructive regulations.