Home » One on One: Improving Quality of Life Is the New Economic Development

One on One: Improving Quality of Life Is the New Economic Development

SPEDA scoring wins by aggressively taking care of Somerset-Pulaski business first, CEO Chris Girdler says

By Mark Green

Mark Green: The Somerset-Pulaski Economic Development Authority (SPEDA) was formed in 2019 to be an innovative economic development agency and you are its first leader. How do you describe this fresh approach that SPEDA is taking?
Chris Girdler: As a seventh-generation Pulaski Countian, I’m honored to do what I do here at SPEDA. It’s a labor of love. I’m passionate about making a difference in Somerset and Pulaski County and the Lake Cumberland region. There’s nowhere else in this world that I would rather live, work, play or raise my family than right here. That being said, our first step in starting SPEDA was to admit that the status quo was not working. Economic development had been stale and stagnant in our community for well over 15 years. Economic development is more than building a spec building and hoping some industry might move in: Economic development is a process a community undertakes to improve the economic, political and social well-being of its people. We created this big umbrella approach to economic development.

MG: Somerset and Pulaski seem to be in in the midst of a multiyear burst of activity. What are some of the intentional efforts and initiatives you have undertaken that are proving effective?
CG: It’s that overall approach to improve the economic, political and social wellbeing. We’re still very focused on industrial improvement, but we’ve taken it to the next level. In addition, we’re very focused on tourism development and marketing; on retail and commercial development. We’re very engaged in the educational world and workforce development. We’re heavily engaged in arts and cultural enrichment, and trying to attract conferences and conventions. We view agriculture as a major industry; people often overlook that it is a great job creator.

When you take all those different items it comes down to an overall quality of life and that’s our big umbrella. We’re kind of a community planning organization; we try to connect the dots. If we see things in the community that need to be worked on, we’ll jump in and pursue it.
The two main pillars of our approach are, first and foremost, taking care of our existing businesses. We want to be a community that takes care of our own here. Studies show 70% of all economic development, of all new jobs created, comes from an existing business choosing to expand. The second pillar is workforce development and education, working hand-in-hand with all of those entities, creating different programs. Our job in that respect is not to appeal to the lowest common denominator; our job is to raise the bar. We’re being very aggressive in doing so, promoting a lot of new programs to do that.

MG: Were there existing frameworks for direct interaction with the public school system or did SPEDA create a new framework?
CG: We wanted to ensure that we were, as an organization, highly visible within our educational system as a whole, very engaged with our middle schools, high schools, Somerset Community College, Campbellsville University and the other higher ed institutions throughout Kentucky. We host Eastern Kentucky University, University of Kentucky, many others here in our community. We try to make sure we’re all on the same page if there’re ways we can work together. That outreach and ensuring there is consistent communication and open dialogue between all is definitely a new component to our economic development entity.

We want to make sure businesses have that relationship with educators because we need to ensure we’re meeting the demands of the business world, that we’re training students properly, that the business community is letting the school system know the future expected needs and types of jobs they’re going to have.

We realized quickly upon starting SPEDA and getting dialogue going that the entities had the best of intentions, they all wanted to do very similar things, but they were going about it in different ways and not coordinating efforts. We started an industrial leaders breakfast to bring our largest employers together and have our educators in the room and have good open dialogue.

Next summer we’re instituting a bus-to-business tour where people will take students out to see different facilities. We’re going to take guidance counselors and teachers out, and it’ll be part of their professional development hours. We’re coordinating that effort within the schools. We sit on a lot of various advisory councils within the K-12 and higher ed institutes as well. We’re making sure that open dialogue exists.

MG: Tell us about some of the significant ‘wins’ in the past couple of years. The ones getting a lot of mention are the Horse Soldier bourbon project, AppHarvest and Connor Logistics.
CG: We’re very proud of those announcements. Those are ‘wins.’ Harvest Hollander manufacturing company located its first facility outside Cincinnati in Somerset a year ago; that was a wonderful win. Team Modern (Distributors) had a $25 million expansion, over 40 new jobs created. Armstrong Hardwood flooring did a $2.5 million expansion, over 20 new jobs created. Continental Refinery is coming back online, expanding and going into a lot of refining process areas; that’s a huge win.

But a ‘win’ in my opinion—and SPEDA’s—is not just a new business coming to town. For example, we hosted the first-ever Lake Cumberland Air Show at Lake Cumberland Regional Airport that attracted 5,000 people from all over the state and outside the state. We’re already planning one for 2022. A great win we have is our inmate reentry program. We partnered with our local jailer, our detention center, with Somerset Community College and last week had our first all-female class graduating with welding certificates. They are inmates in the detention center, so we’re hopefully helping provide a better life for them and their families upon release.

We instituted a mini-grant program where, through savings we realized through good management, we are putting money back out into the community, encouraging entrepreneurship for startup businesses or an existing business that wants to purchase new equipment, expand in some form, hire more people, implement leadership programs, and various other forms of training. We view that as a win.

And the veterans park we’re creating in Somerset and Pulaski County. That’s out of the norm for an economic development entity to pursue, but hospitality is huge in our community; tourism is our No. 1 industry. So we’ve instituted hospitality training programs and when those people finish they’re able to treat clients and customers with a higher scale of hospitality. We see that as a win.

All these different things bind into one. And we think it’s showing. Since SPEDA’s creation, in the past two years we’ve announced over $300 million in investment and over 1,000 new jobs in Somerset, in Pulaski County. The model is working and we truly feel we’re just getting started right now.

MG: How much of this growth has been organic, local activity, as opposed to outside recruitment that often gets more of the attention?
CG: The two go hand in hand. Nothing was brought to us from a recruitment perspective, saying so-and-so is looking for a community of your type. It has been us going out, being very politely aggressive and pursuing these opportunities. One of the things we changed locally when SPEDA came in is that we said we would not do direct incentives to any company looking to come here. We feel money could be better spent improving the quality of life for our current citizens, creating an environment in a community that people want to live in, people want to move to. One of our slogans is Making Business About People. People are our biggest asset. It’s one of our competitive advantages.

Another thing we say is, we’re not just laying bricks; we’re building cathedrals. When I talk about all these little things we’re doing, those are the bricks being put into place for the big cathedral, the overall vision that we have for the community. The local and the outside go hand in hand.

MG: Somerset has initiated an ambitious project to launch its own new private, postsecondary institution, the University of Somerset. How did this come about? What’s the current status of that project?
CG: We have wonderful postsecondary educational institutions in our community. I’m a huge fan of Somerset Community College and work with them daily. I serve on the board of regents for KCTCS, a system that has an amazing direct impact on so many lives. We’re grateful for the campuses of the universities present here. We have a great relationship with EKU, with UK, with WKU, who have a strong presence.
That being said, people in this community have talked for decades about the need for our own four-year institution. It’s obvious that the Commonwealth of Kentucky cannot afford to do one. I give tremendous credit to Somerset Mayor Alan Keck. He’s a visionary, a bold leader. He brings people together like I’ve never seen before. He set out an ambitious plan, but I believe he is going to accomplish the end goal.

Instead of continuing to talk about it, he said, “Let’s do it.” The goal is not just to educate people here in this community and region; our goal is to create a higher-education institution that’s going to bring in people from all over the world to Somerset, Ky., to obtain a world-class education and train for jobs of the future. There has already been multimillions of dollars pledged to the institution. It’s not an easy undertaking but nothing worth doing ever is, so we are pursuing it with as much energy and excitement and integrity as we possibly can. There are some big announcements on the horizon; stay tuned in early 2022. There will be some timetables attached to those announcements.

MG: How significant is agriculture, and how did the AppHarvest project come about?
CG: I don’t know how to characterize the existing agribusiness sector, but a lot of people noticed that AppHarvest chose to locate one of its advanced agribusiness facilities here in Pulaski County. Agriculture is a big part of our community, but it’s not on a large commercial scale. There are lots of family farms throughout Pulaski County and a strong history in agriculture. People don’t realize what a beef cattle operation we have. Kentucky is the largest beef cattle-producing state east of the Mississippi River and Pulaski is the second largest beef cattle-producing county, just behind Barren.

AppHarvest as a company is very inspirational, very forward thinking. We believe in the model. We saw a lot of synergies between Somerset and AppHarvest and feel it was a great marriage between community and corporation. Extensive conversations went on with AppHarvest prior to the announcement. There was a lot of due diligence to be done.

I’m a huge fan of the B-Corp model. I would love to see the Commonwealth of Kentucky change some of our statues to allow B corporations. That’s the way of the future: a corporation that also has that societal impact mixed in. With AppHarvest coming in and other companies, we’re seeing a tremendous boom in the agritech sector.

Agriculture is a great industry. It provides an amazing amount of jobs, helps with one’s work ethic. We promote arts and cultural enrichment, and we think agriculture is art. We think food is art. That collaborative approach is one of the things AppHarvest likes about our community. It’s been a great relationship. They are about 20% into construction of their facility and anticipate being fully operational in the fourth quarter of 2022. They’re disrupting an entire supply chain and it’s exciting to see that happening not just in Somerset but throughout the commonwealth.

MG: When a community has bursts of growth like Somerset is experiencing, it tends to be the result of strong cooperation among the local leaders, above and beyond the norm. Do you feel that’s happening for Somerset and Pulaski?
CG: Yes. Those who try to pit people against one another and create a divide or create animosity are very self-serving. They don’t have the community’s best interest at heart or in mind. In Somerset and Pulaski County, we have an unprecedented level of cooperation and collaboration taking place. The results speak for themselves. There are disagreements from time to time, but that never keeps us from being able to work together. Once we get everybody on the bus, moving in the same direction, that’s the secret sauce. We’ve been blessed to have the right people on the bus together, going the same direction. I hope America as a whole can take some lessons. We can either feast together or starve together, and I say we feast together. That comes from bringing folks together.

A happy memento from when we unveiled our logo, our branding of what our organization stands for, is what I call our little foam squishy people. One of these represents one person in this community, but once we start linking them together the reach expands immensely and our ability to get things done expands. Working together, moving forward together: That’s what SPEDA stands for, what we promote and what we’re constantly championing. If we join forces, a lot can be accomplished.

MG: Are there any names you would mention as key leaders in this collaborative spirit?
CG: The big catalyst was Mayor Alan Keck coming into office. He’s a visionary, he’s a collaborator. He gets things done. Our county government had been pursuing the creation of a new economic development agency before he came into office. That helped connect the dots and get SPEDA formed. We dissolved the predecessor organization. We said this is not working; we can’t be an ostrich with our head in the sand as if we don’t have problems. Summer 2019, we got our legs under us and started moving forward aggressively.

MG: Many of SPEDA’s strategies are related to improving local quality of life—benefiting existing residents to create an environment that attracts growth. How do economic development officials successfully approach an abstract thing like quality of life?
CG: Everything connects. All ships in the harbor rise with the tide. Our No. 1 pillar is taking care of our existing businesses, our existing citizens. Our guys come from the business world. When I was in the business world, I always said my best salesperson in the marketplace is going to be a happy customer. In the economic development world, my best salesperson for our community to anyone looking to relocate here is an existing business, a citizen living here who says this community takes care of you when you’re here: They listen; they’re here to listen. We use that analogy and the process is important.

MG: As you talk to site selectors or outside prospects—or internal too—what characteristics do you get the best feedback about? What’s making them interested in the community?
CG: One of our biggest competitive advantages is Lake Cumberland. We trademark ourselves as the capital of the Lake Cumberland region. We’re very proud of what Lake Cumberland means to this community since its impoundment in the late ’40s, early ’50s. This helps set Somerset apart from the rest of the region. We have taken advantage of what it brings.

Also, our hospitality as a community, and visionary and responsive leadership. A safe community is very important. That’s what we hear from a lot of our people. We just released a law enforcement-focused, safe community video. SPEDA has a video library that we created on our website.

Outdoor recreation is huge here and not just Lake Cumberland. We have the Big South Fork National Park. We have Boone National Forest. We have Buck Creek; SPEDA created a Buck Creek Blue Water Trail with information on our website. Rockcastle River is an amazing kayaking and canoeing experience. Pulaski County Park is an 800-acre public facility on the shores of Lake Cumberland. We did a video for our mountain bike trails. The abundant resources in the Lake Cumberland region are some of our competitive advantages.

We have a great array of retail and commercial experiences for dining options. We have great medical and health care facilities. Lake Cumberland Regional Hospital is a major employer and a world-class institution. And at the end of the day, it’s the forward thinking, progressive mindset that people see in Somerset, where we are looking to lead the region. We are trying new and different things. To do things that have never been done before, you have to do things that have never been done before. That is something that we’re pursuing.

MG: Lake Cumberland is a unique asset. It claims the title of the Houseboat Capital of the World, and your family has a personal history in the industry. What is the present status of the houseboat sector?
CG: When I was in the state Senate, I was proud to officially make Kentucky the Houseboat Capital of the World. That was kind of a tourism marketing/promotional thing. The houseboat industry is something I’m proud of. My grandfather in 1953 built the first houseboat ever known on the shores of Lake Cumberland. It was 10-feet wide and 24-feet long. They’ve grown quite a bit since those days. We have over 3,000 houseboats floating on Lake Cumberland. We have the second largest houseboat rental fleet in America. Lake Powell (at Hoover Dam) is first.

That industry—and the manufacturing industry as a whole market—suffered tremendously during the ’08 recession. In addition, people’s recreational habits changed. The houseboat industry will probably never reach that point where it was prior to the ’08 recession. But we do have some strong manufacturers still existing. You have Somerset Houseboats and in Monticello, a company called Sunstar Houseboats survived the recession and still manufactures a great product. Meanwhile, companies came in and are succeeding at renovating and refurbishing houseboats. The pre-owned houseboat market has seen a surge. There are a lot of jobs in the region connected to this as people bring boats from all over the country to be renovated and then shipped back out to Arkansas, Texas, Georgia, wherever.

MG: Hospitality is your area’s No. 1 industry. What are your expectations moving forward?
CG: We have an amazing executive director. Michelle Allen spent the last two decades within the tourism industry. She conducts hospitality training all over the region. The hospitality sector is very strong and growing, as shown with Horse Soldier Bourbon coming here. That’s a $200 million investment on 227 acres on the shores of the lake. In addition to the distillery and rick houses, it will be a huge hospitality venue with a five-star boutique hotel and cabins on the lake, a retail village. It makes Somerset the southern anchor of the Bourbon Trail. It is a huge positive impact on this community.

I’m chairman of an organization called Dream BIG; BIG is an acronym for Burnside Island Group. We have a 430-acre island on Lake Cumberland with an 18-hole golf course, the best boat ramp on Lake Cumberland, near Burnside Marina, right at Jamestown. Dream BIG is a special governmental entity working together. We are meeting with the Tourism Cabinet in Frankfort to pursue P3 (public-private partnership) opportunities with private-sector entities to bring development to Burnside Island. That’s one of those things that has been talked about for decades. We’re working hand-in-hand with Burnside Mayor Robert Lawson and his city council, pursuing that aggressively, and have feedback from private-sector developers that have interest.

We promote ourselves as the capital of Lake Cumberland, which has 4 million visitors per year. That’s more than Yellowstone National Park.
We have the Master Musician’s Festival that brings in people in-state and across the country to attend right here in Somerset. Last year was our highest-grossing festival, the highest attended in its almost 30-year history. We also have Somernites Cruise, a monthly car cruise on the weekends from April through October. It’s the largest classic car show in America on a monthly basis, right here in Somerset. The hospitality tourism industry is very strong here and that’s not even getting into the agritourism.

MG: Across the state there has been a wave of votes to legalize alcohol sales. What has been the impact of legal alcoholic beverage sales on business activity here?
CG: It has been extremely positive. It was about six to seven years ago. When that occurred, it was a tool that for decades was missing. Once that tool was available for our economic development efforts, it has had an extremely positive impact. The doom-and-gloom forecasts predicted by some if we were to vote sales in haven’t even remotely come to fruition. It, along with Mayor Keck’s leadership, helped lead to a downtown renaissance. We have a large assortment of downtown restaurants, eateries, some great bourbon and beer entities. We have downtown festivals that take place with music and art. Vendors come in and serve specialty drinks. It’s been an overwhelmingly positive thing for our community.

MG: You are near Tennessee, whose tax structure and economic incentives are considered pretty successful. Would you suggest Kentucky adopt any of Tennessee’s strategies on taxation and incentives?
CG: Kentucky needs an aggressive overhaul of our tax system. I would say don’t just adopt Tennessee’s (strategy) but improve it and do even better. I’ve always been an advocate for eliminating individual income tax. Income tax is a productivity tax, and in today’s workforce crisis, that’s one way to incentivize people to work a little bit more—take away that productivity tax. If people are able to keep more of the money they’re making, they have more money to spend, more money to invest. When you have more money, it’s human nature to spend more money.

If we’re going to compete against Tennessee, against Indiana, we’re going to have to look at (eliminating) that individual income tax. We have a thriving health care system here; Lake Cumberland Regional Hospital employs over 1,400 people. But put yourself in the shoes of a physician being recruited to come to Somerset and being recruited by communities two or three hours away. You can go to Tennessee and not have to pay individual income tax or come to Somerset, just 45 minutes across the border, and have to pay income tax. A lot of times it makes financial common sense for that person to choose the state that does not have income tax. We’re at a competitive disadvantage if we’re going to recruit the best and brightest from all professions to become Kentuckians. You’ll see people want to move here. Companies follow after the workers.

We need to overhaul our budgetary tax system in Kentucky. One thing you see because the commonwealth is not in a good position financially is the “sweeping” of (state budget) funds. Tourism is one thing Tennessee is doing much better than we are, and a lot of that comes down to their marketing budget. I always say Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge have nothing on my home region—until I look at their marketing budget. When I was in the state Senate, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge were spending almost 10 times more than the entire commonwealth spent promoting Kentucky. We take revenue streams that are supposed to go to tourism and plug a hole elsewhere in the budget. That’s a small example of changes we need to see if we’re going to compete with surrounding areas.

Another example of systems where we need tax reform is infrastructure. We can’t afford to take care of the bridges and roads we currently have, much less build new ones. Redoing the way our roads and our infrastructure is funded is a necessity if we’re going to prepare ourselves for the future growth that is coming.

MG: Tell us about Continental Refining Co. and Hemisphere Limited. What does it mean for them to be members of your business community?
CG: It has a very long deep history within the community. It used to be Somerset Refinery, and Somerset gas stations were scattered throughout southern and eastern Kentucky that were supplied by the local refinery. The marketplace took control, which I’m a big fan of, and the refinery changed ownership several times. A gentleman named Demetrios Haseotes moved here from outside the state. He was attracted because of the refinery but also other things he saw in the community. “The Letter D,” as I refer to him because he has become a dear friend, is one of the most innovative and aggressive businessmen I’ve been around. His love of agriculture is real. His love of business is real. He loves this community and he has invested a tremendous amount of resources, time and money into getting the refinery back up and operational. They are going to start refining product again onto the oil market.

But what they are extremely excited about in that agritech sector is starting to crush soybeans for an energy source. D is going to be refining biodiesel product right here in Somerset. We had a groundbreaking Dec. 21 for the soybean crushing biodiesel refining project. You’re going to hear a lot of noise in this neck of the woods with Demetrios and his team. We’re glad that Demetrios chose Somerset for the tremendous investment that he’s making.

MG: How are relations among Somerset, London and Corbin? Is there much cooperation and collaboration going on in the economic development area?
CG: You all refer to “the golden triangle” as Lexington, Louisville and the Northern Kentucky area. Down here, our golden triangle is Somerset, London and Corbin. We have really good relationships with those communities. I consider a lot of the elected officials and economic development directors as personal friends. We work very well together. When you combine those three communities, we become an economic powerhouse.

Something we’re working on is a sign of that collaboration. We brought the mayors, the airport boards and economic development directors together and signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to try to transition the essential air service designation that London-Corbin Airport had back in the ’80s—Piedmont Airlines flew commercially out of there until 1981—to Lake Cumberland Regional Airport. We’re pursuing commercial air service for Somerset. Through our close relationships, we were able to get London and Corbin to agree to give up that designation and see if we can redesignate Somerset. Lake Cumberland Regional is set up for commercial air service terminal-wise, and London-Corbin is set up for cargo and freight industry and their proximity to I-75. So, we found common agreement there to try something new. I anticipate some announcements early in the year.

MG: Do the three communities get together and market a joint set of data like population, economic activity, etc.?
CG: There is regular contact and communication, but we do not have a formal entity where we are together on a regular basis. What I envision is if we see something come across the horizon, one of those big regional projects we could pursue and improve our chances of getting that in one our communities, you would see more formality brought to it. For now, we’re working very well together. At the end of the day, county lines are somewhat artificial and we have so much in common. But if you’re competing against Georgia, Texas, Florida—if you look at the size of their counties, they’re the equivalent of five or six of our counties in Kentucky. If we’re going to compete against those places then we have to work together as a region.