Peter Hille: E. Ky. must innovate on economic development

Peter Hille is executive vice president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development and chair of the East Kentucky Leadership Foundation.
Peter Hille is executive vice president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development and chair of the East Kentucky Leadership Foundation.

It's easy to see the problems facing our region. It's not always easy to see solutions. To build a new economy, we must go beyond traditional approaches to economic development. Here are some examples of how we might think outside the box:

■ Retiree recruitment. Thousands of our best and brightest have left to seek opportunity elsewhere, and many of them have been quite successful. Some of them would retire "back home" if we could provide the amenities they seek.

The average age at which people move to retirement communities is around 71, so these folks have quite a few years of active life ahead, during which they can contribute as volunteers, board members and consumers of goods and services. They would bring financial assets, deep experience and high expectations for functional communities.

■ Automobile remanufacturing. Eastern Kentucky is not likely to get a Toyota plant. But what if we built a facility to re-manufacture used cars? We have a lot of people with excellent mechanical skills, and community colleges could quickly train workers to specialize in particular areas like brakes or bodywork. Used cars could be donated or purchased and after refurbishing be sold on the open market or leased, with a subsidy to low-income folks for whom reliable transportation can be a significant barrier to work or school.

■ Drug treatment. We know the region has a big drug problem. In a recent radio interview, Attorney General Jack Conway stated that we can't "arrest our way out" of the problem. If Kentucky wins a pending lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, he hopes the proceeds could be used for drug treatment.

What if we take that a step further: Settle out of court with a commitment from Purdue Pharma to create a state-of-the-art regional treatment facility in Eastern Kentucky, leverage the resources of other drug companies and harness their research capacities to develop better treatment. Then, we need to co-locate some businesses that will hire workers transitioning out of treatment so they can begin a new life while they are monitored and tested to ensure against relapse.

■ Energy efficiency. A by-product of having cheap electricity is that Kentuckians are also among the highest per-capita electricity users. Retrofits that save energy can make businesses more profitable and homes more comfortable and put cash in people's pockets. Energy efficiency is low-hanging fruit, often repaying investments in a few years. Utilities offer rebates and often provide free analysis and recommendations for energy-saving measures.

Innovative programs provide retrofits at no up-front cost to homeowners, with the investment repaid through a charge on the electric bill. If we took this on in a big way, thousands of jobs could be created for installers and contractors

■ Student-run businesses. Nearly all of our downtowns have empty storefronts. Imagine them filled with cafés, coffee shops, music stores, art and craft galleries or other small enterprises run by high school students. Classes could be developed to help them learn how to run these businesses and they could get academic credit as they work. We would revitalize our downtowns while the next generation of local business owners builds real-world entrepreneurial skills.

There are many more good ideas. For these innovations to succeed we need a strong foundation for economic diversification.

Key elements include support for entrepreneurs, both start-ups and existing enterprises; growing important sectors in addition to energy, such as local agriculture, tourism, health care and sustainable wood products; supporting workers with retraining and job matching, and targeted investments in community assets, like education and broadband.

The Shaping our Appalachian Region summit was an opportunity to surface ideas and galvanize citizens and leaders to meet the challenges. Now we need to build structures that will help us plan, develop and coordinate these efforts and investments.

There is a long journey ahead, but the opportunities for a brighter future are real.