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Perspective: Good Problems to Manage a Record Setting Year

If Kentucky can solve the workforce and housing puzzles, it will continue to break records in the future

By Mark Green

Kentucky is finishing a record-shattering 2021 with never-before-seen levels of economic investment announcements and overall conditions lining up that could make 2022 the best in commonwealth history for actual business activity.

It won’t happen automatically. There is work to do. But the state has good problems to manage, mostly related to ensuring there are enough skilled people to fill all the well-paying jobs Kentucky expects in the immediate future and the rest of the decade.

This calendar year has been our state’s best ever for economic investment, having topped $10 billion and still climbing early in the fourth quarter. The megadeal is the $5.8 billion Ford-SK Innovations project to build a massive vehicle battery manufacturing operation with 5,000 jobs—for starters, Ford says—in the heart of the state.

That’s $4 billion bigger than any previous project.

Plans are to begin operations in 2025 at a 1,500-acre campus along I-65 south of Elizabethtown. Getting there will create a load of construction contracts and jobs between now and 2025.

The site has rail service. Most of I-65 between Louisville and Bowling Green has been upgraded in the recent past, and the Ohio River bridges project in Louisville definitely helped land this project.

Passage of the $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill will help the state improve its transportation system. By 2025 we could well see active construction of a Brent Spence Bridge bottleneck fix for commercial transit and local traffic now squeezing across the Ohio River on an I-75/I-71 link whose capacity was exceeded 15 or 20 years ago.

Kentucky is an advanced manufacturing, primary metals and logistics, powerhouse. Our geography and low operating costs are a great advantage to continuing to attract large projects—if the commonwealth can maintain adequate transportation assets, solve the final-mile issue of broadband service for the 120-county Kentucky Wired gigabit network, and—most crucially—expand our skilled workforce pipeline.
The education community is attacking the workforce issue with much input from its business partners. Workforce is a concern literally around the developed world.

Another fundamental problem, however, is also one the entire nation is confronting: adequate and affordable housing. Inadequate housing inventory is driving costs up and frustrating buyers.

Kentucky cannot afford to be conservative in tackling and solving this issue. The regions that come up with answers first are likely to win the competition for workers. The Ford-SK project alone will add demand for thousands of homes within driving range of that plant. Amazon continues to grow its operations here, where it already has more facilities than any other state. The primary metals industry has billions in projects newly operating, under construction and announced. The tech/digital sector, too, is opening its eyes to the benefits of mid-America, where costs are much lower, family life is fuller and local government more likely to partner with you than squeeze you for taxes.
There is no guarantee Kentucky will grab the brass ring in sight for 2022. It will depend on how we manage to put aside differences, collaborate and take on the good problems we have.

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