The need for a regional approach to economic development was a recurring theme during a day-long business symposium held recently at West Kentucky Community and Technical College.
The first annual Regional Economic Development Symposium, held April 18 at the WKCTC's Emerging Technology Center, was a follow-up to the economic development road trip the community college led to South Carolina in late March, to learn first-hand about the significant economic growth the Greenville/Spartanburg area has experienced.
Many of the road trip participants, representing education, business and industry, also participated in the symposium, sharing what they learned and their own ideas for continued collaboration and cooperation to bring quality jobs to west Kentucky.
"The whole purpose of the symposium was to expand the dialogue and inform others about the trip," said Dr. Anton Reece, WKCTC president. "And, to reiterate the power and synergy behind regionalism and collaboration."
Several panel discussions were held throughout the day including comments from area state legislators on the importance of bringing more state and international trade to the region.
Breakout sessions included a presentation by Danny Murphy, assistant dean of community engagement and diversity at the University of Kentucky, who discussed how being fully committed to diversity is crucial to economic development. In addition, a discussion with a 20-40-year-old group included comments about what is needed to retain young professionals and bring new talent to the region.
Featured speakers First District U.S. Rep. James Comer, R-Kentucky, and Bob Quick, president and CEO of Commerce Lexington, Inc., praised the emphasis given on regionalism.
"What's encouraging to me when I come to Paducah to talk about economic development, is I see the surrounding county judge-executives, I see the surrounding mayors all here, the surrounding economic development directors and you all view economic development as regional," said Comer.
"It's not county by county or city by city. If a plant goes to Ballard County, that's a win for Paducah. If a plant goes to Calvert City, that's a win for Paducah. I just want to thank you all for working together."
The first-term congressman touched on some of the challenges communities, particularly rural ones, face.
"The biggest challenge today to every industry is the shortage of labor," said Comer. "I've seen in my congressional district (35 counties) over 2,000 advertised openings for welders right now."
He praised WKCTC's ongoing efforts to help build a skilled workforce to address the issue.
Quick outlined some of the successes Lexington has had regarding a regional approach.
"Regionalism is our answer to being competitive," he said. "We're competing against the globe in central Kentucky. We're competing against million-people markets. If it's just about Fayette County, we're going to lose. But if it's about the region we have a chance to win."
According to Quick, "When I talk about economic development, I'm talking about expansion, recruitment, retention, startup. And, when I talk about community development, public infrastructure and development, workforce, to me it's all economic development."
Economic development is a team sport, he said.
"It's about relationships. It's about building trust. It's about partnerships."
Turning challenges into opportunities was part of the symposium discussion on economic development.
"Asian carp presents us with a lot of different challenges and different opportunities," said Chris Wooldridge, district director of the Murray State University Small Business Development. "We've seen how to turn some of those challenges into opportunities."
He was referring to the recent announcement that Chinese investors are planning to start seven businesses involved in processing Asian carp, to be located in Ballard County's industrial park.
The hemp industry is another great opportunity growth, evidenced by GenCanna Global, a Winchester-based company, announcing plans to build the largest hemp processing plant in the country in Graves County.
"We're very excited about the regionalism that's building," he said.
As the symposium was winding down, Reece said the event had already "exceeded expectations" and plans are in the works to make it an annual event.
"A real big, I guess epiphany for me, even in my role as college president is this heightened awareness that numbers count," he said. "And, so the number of skilled people that you have ready is a huge factor in terms of how we draw people to the area.
"We've got to grow the population, the student population and the literal (community) population, because it builds momentum," Reece said. "It builds synergy and brings more resources into play. The more resources you have, the more you can do."