Ballard County Judge-Executive Todd Cooper admits he had about three pages of notes in preparation for his annual update to the Ballard County Chamber of Commerce breakfast in December.

"Believe it or not, a lot of it was just bullet points," he said.

That's because, to put in mildly, 2019 was a big year for the far western Kentucky County which touches both the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

A successful trip to China to attend a global business conference, the reopening of the former Verso paper mill and the expansion of an existing business dedicated to the processing of Asian carp into a full-blown industrial park were just a few of the year's events which kept Cooper busy and things booming in Ballard County.

Growth continued among existing businesses as well, and a long-time business, Economy Boat Store, celebrated the rebuilding of its Wickliffe facility which was destroyed by a March 7, 2017 storm.

"It's kind of unbelievable how all this came together in such a short period of time, really," the judge-executive said.

Cooper is quick to point out that no one person, himself included, is responsible for the positive economic activity.

"It's truly been a team effort. It's not about one individual at all," he said.

"A lot of good things have happened. I have to give credit to the Lord, for sure, because I know a lot of people have been praying about the community and the region. You know, we've been losing population in the region for a while and we're trying to reverse that trend."

Ballard County has certainly taken part in the global economy, evidenced by the level of Chinese investment.

In January, Cooper and Paducah Mayor Brandi Harless traveled to China at the invitation of officials with Shanying International, the parent company for Global Win and Phoenix Paper Wickliffe, the new operators of the former Verso facility.

The purchase of the Verso plant "brought hope for the entire region and was the beginning of a tremendous economic development boost," said Cooper.

At the end of May, the first roll of bleached hardwood pulp was produced by Phoenix Paper. The pulp produced at the Wickliffe plant can be used to make a variety of products, including boxing material. Initially, the plant employed 224 people.

In August, the news got better with the announcement Phoenix Paper plans to invest an additional $200 million in the mill and add approximately 150 additional jobs.

"I knew there was going to be a Phase 2," Cooper said. "I didn't know the timing. I thought it would be five, six, seven years away.

A planned groundbreaking could be taking place pretty soon, according to Cooper.

"It's a testament to the workforce locally because the people that they hired, the ones that were former employees they brought back and the new ones hired (including contractors and local trades people) all worked extremely hard to get the mill back up and running," he said.

Chinese investment was also at the heart of the April announcement establishing the first industrial park dedicated to processing Asian carp in the U.S. in Ballard County.

Investors representing seven new companies that will build in the 72-acre International Fisheries Industrial Park were on hand to help launch the park, spearheaded by Angie Yu, president of Two Rivers Fisheries which anchors the park along Ky. 286. Each is expected to invest $1 million and hire about 10 employees, according to Yu.

Cooper reminded the local and state officials and guests attending the announcement that Yu was the first tenant in the park.

"The Ballard County Economic Board helped recruit her here and built this (Two Rivers Fisheries) building," Cooper said. "It sat empty for years. She's taken lemons and made lemonade, for sure, through her hard work and determination."

One of the newly-formed companies, Express Fishing and Sports Corporation, held the first of what is planned to be an annual international Asian carp fishing tournament in October. The event, which featured over $15,000 in prize money, drew over 40 competitors from several countries and resulted in more than 2,000 pounds worth of the invasive species of fish caught.

A number of existing companies continued to expand their operation during 2019. While Economy Boat Store continued to operate out of temporary quarters following the devastating 2017 storm, the company renewed its commitment as one of the area's largest employers, celebrating the reopening of its rebuilt Wickliffe facility.

Economy Boat Store features a variety of products and services to the marine industry, such as midstream and dockside fueling, lube oil, groceries, meat, rope, rigging, and crew changes.

Economy Boat Store is a division of Pilot Thomas Logistics. According to David Reynolds, vice president of Pilot Thomas Logistics, "we decided we wanted to double down and make the investment in the city of Wickliffe and Ballard County and to our people and the industry we serve."

Ballard County is also involved in some regional efforts that extend beyond the borders of Kentucky, according to Cooper.

The county joined the Mississippi & Ohio River Confluence Economic Alliance in July, which also includes Fulton, Hickman and Carlisle counties, Alexander County in Illinois, Obion County, Tennessee and the cities of Charleston and East Prairie, Missouri.

"It's truly a regional effort," Cooper said. "We've been a beneficiary of some very positive things going on just simply, I think, because of location ... but also partnerships."

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