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Building Up Kentucky: A KET Forum

Host Renee Shaw and panelists examine how Kentucky’s cities and counties work to strengthen communities through economic development efforts.
Season 1 Episode 27 Length 56:33 Premiere: 12/11/23

Building Up Kentucky

Despite a global pandemic and economic turmoil, Kentucky has experienced a remarkable run of new projects and job creation in recent years. But these economic development opportunities also bring challenges from the need for new roads and housing, to developing the talent to fill the positions.

Perhaps no community better illustrates these issues than Glendale. The Hardin County hamlet of just over 2,000 people will be home to what’s being called the two biggest electric vehicle battery plants in the world.

"What makes this so exciting is who it is,” says Rick Games, president of the Elizabethtown/Hardin County Industrial Foundation. “Ford and (South Korean conglomerate) SK On are both huge, very reputable companies, and we’re just excited that they’ve come together in this joint venture and they chose this site.”

Blue Oval SK will include two massive buildings that will each cover 4.3 million square feet. The 1,500-acre site is expected to employ 5,000 people, and spin off thousands of more jobs in neighboring counties. As a result, officials expect the population in that part of central Kentucky to jump by 22,000 people over the next three years.

“This is a transition for us in this area to move from a very rural farming community of Glendale into a lot of growth,” says Hardin County Judge Executive Keith Taul. “It’s an exciting time in Hardin County. It’s challenging but it’s exciting.”

In addition to the plant, Blue Oval SK will need new roads as well as water and sewer lines, housing for the new employees, restaurants and other amenities for those employees, and workforce training opportunities to prepare them for the new high-tech positions.

“It’s not just jobs coming in but it’s like a 5,000-person town being dropped on top of Elizabethtown,” says Haley McCoy, president and CEO of the Kentucky Association for Economic Development. “You have to think about all of those other services that people need.”

Development Strategies for Success

Whether it’s a massive operation like Blue Oval SK or smaller projects that are blossoming across the commonwealth, experts say successful communities benefit from a core set of strategies.

Ted Abernathy, a consultant with North Carolina-based Economic Leadership, LLC, says the states that perform the best have favorable business, tax, and regulatory climates. The regions and communities that excel also have available workers with the in-demand skills, sufficient infrastructure to support new development, and favorable building and zoning policies. He says Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, and states in the intermountain west are generally booming, while the southern Delta states, parts of the northeast, and the upper Midwest are struggling.

Kentucky is also doing well, according to Abernathy, with job growth that is exceeding national averages, especially in manufacturing and construction.

“The nice part about that is it’s a precursor to what’s going to happen next, because we don’t build things unless we’re building them for somebody’s home or company,” he says.

Abernathy attributes Kentucky’s growth to pro-business policies, lower taxes, and a lower cost of living. He says the commonwealth is also strongly positioned with good transportation links, distribution networks, and energy resources.

“The state’s done a good job overall in their economic development approach in trying to find the things that are going to work for Kentuckians,” he says.

Another critical component will be investments in schools and technical training centers to ensure that graduates have the skills the new employers will seek. Sen. Max Wise (R-Campbellsville), chair of the Senate Economic Development, Tourism, and Labor Committee, says the state needs to keep families here and lure new ones to the commonwealth. He also argues for sound, long-range energy policies to ensure the new factories and businesses have the power they will need to operate.

“I worry about energy for the future,” says Wise. “That’s a huge issue.... We’ve got to look at longevity of the Commonwealth of Kentucky and using our natural resources for that.”

Development Initiatives in a Metro Area

Covington is just one northern Kentucky community that has experienced robust growth in recent years. Mayor Joe Meyer attributes that success to good neighborhood development policies and a no-drama approach to working with developers and prospective businesses.

“We took the attitude very publicly... that we wanted to be boring, that we wanted to be reliable, that we wanted to be trustworthy,” says Meyer. “We’ve had just a remarkable amount of development within the city, and I can’t help but think that that attitude is a big part of the reason.”

Shockwaves rippled through the city in 2016 when the Internal Revenue Service announced it would shutter its massive processing facility there. Meyer says the city bought the 23-acre site in the heart of downtown Covington in 2020 and embarked on an extensive planning process with local residents. Rather than replace the IRS facility with another large-scale employer, Meyer says the acreage will have multiple, mixed-use projects designed to create a sense of community.

“Instead of building high-rises and being Cincinnati junior, we decided to be Covington on steroids,” says Meyer. “We are having human-sized housing developments. Not 10-, 15-, 20-story buildings, but 2-, 3-, 4-, 5-story buildings.”

Another major change coming to Covington will be a new Ohio River bridge and improvements to the existing Brent Spence Bridge. Meyer says local leaders worked for 10 years to shape the scope of the project and greatly reduced the number of Covington families and businesses that would be impacted by the new span. He says they also encouraged state engineers to correct problems such as poor storm water drainage caused by the original bridge construction more than 50 years ago.

As that $3.6 billion project gets underway, Meyer says Covington is also experimenting with new transparent traffic barriers that will reduce noise pollution along the I-71/I-75 corridor yet still allow drivers to see the city. They are also overhauling several downtown streets to promote safety and walkability and increase property values

“We want to slow down the traffic, we want to make it a more desirable neighborhood for residential investment,” Meyer says. “These kind of infrastructure investments, they’re not as sexy as building new highways to new places, but they are vital to creating that quality of life.”

Development Strategies in Other Kentucky Towns

Beyond the state’s metropolitan areas, smaller towns are looking to boost their development efforts. Jim Henderson, executive director of the Kentucky Association of Counties, says more counties neighboring populous areas hope to promote their unique qualifies and benefits to potential employers and employees.

“There are a lot of folks who want to live in places where it’s not that congested and you don’t want to have to fight traffic every day to get to town or take your kids to school,” says Henderson.

Marketing is a key aspect of these efforts. Chris Girdler, president and CEO of Somerset/Pulaski County Economic Development Authority, says if smaller communities don’t tell their own story, someone else will — and likely in unfavorable ways. He says economic development efforts in Somerset had been stagnant for more than a decade, so local officials decided to redefine what development means to their area.

“We decided it was anything that you can do that benefits your community economically, politically, and socially,” says Girdler. “So we’ve been investing heavily obviously in industrial recruitment, but also in commercial and retail recruitment, arts and entertainment, tourism promotion, education, and workforce development.”

In addition to exploring commercial airline service to help boost tourism to Lake Cumberland, Girdler is excited about the Horse Soldier Bourbon project, which will create a $200 million distillery, visitor center, and accommodations overlooking the lake.

Distilled spirits are also a key to growth in Marion County. Brooklyn Leep, executive director of Marion County Economic Development, says the Lebanon area is home to three distilleries and a fourth is under construction. In addition to bourbon, the county also has employers in the timber, plastics, and auto parts industries.

“We’re a county of less than 20,000 people and very rural, so we face those rural challenges:  No river, no rail, 20 miles from an interstate,” says Leep. “But somehow, some way we’ve been able to really do a good job of recruiting jobs to Marion County.”

Leep says the county needs to focus on developing more retail businesses and restaurants that can entice people to move to Marion County, especially among those who might commute to the new Blue Oval SK battery plant in nearby Glendale. She hopes a forthcoming 35,000-square foot multipurpose facility designed for AAU basketball tournaments and community events can be a catalyst for further development in Lebanon.

Beyond the popular Ruth Hunt Candies, Mt. Sterling is also home to operations of two global corporations: a Nestle plant that makes Hot Pockets microwave sandwiches, and Neogen, which produces animal pharmaceuticals. Jason Rainey, executive director of the Mount Sterling-Montgomery County Industrial Authority and Chamber of Commerce, says towns like his, which has a population of about 7.500 people, can offer good quality of life and another commodity that’s often in short supply in larger cities: large parcels of available property.

“As areas are running out of land, how can Mt. Sterling and Montgomery County be a part of that solution,” says Rainey.

To help communities enhance potential industrial sites, the state has launched a $100 million Kentucky Product Development Initiative. Haley McCoy of KAED says communities can apply for grants to acquire property, build-out sites, and improve infrastructure.

“We have an independent, national, site consulting firm that evaluates all the projects, all the applications to look at (return on investment),” says McCoy.

Sen. Wise says the grants require local authorities to put up matching funds, which he contends encourages communities to have “skin in the game.”

“Government cannot do everything,” says Wise. “Government has role to play, but it also gets down to local community leaders, it also gets down to families, it also gets down to work ethic.”


The KET Forum Building Up Kentucky aired on December 11, 2023 and featured Sen. Max Wise;  Haley McCoy, president and CEO of the Kentucky Association for Economic Development; Covington Mayor Joe Meyer; Chris Girdler, president and CEO of Somerset/Pulaski County Economic Development Authority; Jim Henderson, executive director of the Kentucky Association of Counties; Brooklyn Leep, executive director of Marion County Economic Development; and Jason Rainey, executive director of the Mount Sterling-Montgomery County Industrial Authority and Chamber of Commerce.

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Season 1 Episodes

Caring for the Aging: A KET Forum

S1 E28 Length 56:16 Premiere Date 04/01/24

Building Up Kentucky: A KET Forum

S1 E27 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 12/11/23

Supporting Kentucky Veterans: A KET Forum

S1 E26 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/13/23

Early Literacy: A KET Forum

S1 E25 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 08/28/23

Disrupting Addiction: A KET Forum

S1 E24 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 07/24/23

Understanding Autism: A KET Forum

S1 E23 Length 57:59 Premiere Date 06/27/23

Building Opportunities: A KET Forum

S1 E22 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 12/12/22

Honoring Kentucky's Veterans: A KET Forum

S1 E21 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/21/22

Youth Mental Health: A KET Forum

S1 E20 Length 56:43 Premiere Date 09/13/22

AgriTech in Kentucky: A KET Forum

S1 E19 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 05/23/22

Mental Health in Education: A KET Forum

S1 E18 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 03/21/22

Fighting to Breathe: A KET Forum

S1 E17 Length 56:23 Premiere Date 02/28/22

Maternal Health: A KET Forum

S1 E16 Length 57:18 Premiere Date 10/18/21

Examining Violent Crime in Louisville: A KET Forum

S1 E15 Length 58:23 Premiere Date 05/24/21

COVID Update: A KET Forum

S1 E14 Length 58:03 Premiere Date 02/08/21

Building Kentucky's Workforce: A KET Forum

S1 E13 Length 56:53 Premiere Date 01/25/21

Families and COVID-19: A KET Forum

S1 E12 Length 58:36 Premiere Date 04/20/20

Coronavirus: A KET Forum

S1 E11 Length 58:34 Premiere Date 03/10/20

Fostering Family: A KET Forum

S1 E10 Length 58:34 Premiere Date 01/27/20

Prescription for Health: A KET Forum

S1 E9 Length 59:05 Premiere Date 10/07/19

Preventing Youth Suicide: A KET Forum

S1 E8 Length 57:48 Premiere Date 08/12/19

Early Learning: A KET Forum

S1 E7 Length 58:44 Premiere Date 04/23/19

School Safety: A KET Forum

S1 E6 Length 58:37 Premiere Date 02/11/19

Pathways for Tomorrow's Workforce: A KET Forum

S1 E5 Length 56:27 Premiere Date 10/08/18

Disrupting the Opioid Epidemic: A KET Forum

S1 E4 Length 59:04 Premiere Date 07/30/18

Filling Kentucky Jobs: A KET Forum

S1 E3 Length 59:05 Premiere Date 11/14/17

Inside Opioid Addiction: A KET Forum

S1 E2 Length 58:33 Premiere Date 02/13/17

Black Women Writers Forum

S1 E1 Length 56:37 Premiere Date 06/26/16

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Caring for the Aging: A KET Forum - S3 E6

Dr. Wayne Tuckson and a panel of experts discuss the rewarding and challenging experience of caring for the aging, including options for providing in-home and out-of-home care, the skill levels required to render care at home, respite services and support for caregivers and other issues. A 2024 KET production.

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