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Perspective: The Grass Is Greener in the Bluegrass

Kentucky’s unspoiled culture is turning out to be a great economic asset

By Mark Green

Kentucky’s rural culture is having a shining moment as an economic asset. It could turn out to be a shining era.

Our culture sometimes has been a target of humor, but fortunately our Kentucky ways have led us to value and preserve elements of life that are impossible to duplicate and for which there is a growing appreciation elsewhere. The economic tables have turned in our direction.

Kentucky has what today’s world wants and needs most—a workforce with problem-solving skills, ample development sites near world-class logistics, and an unspoiled environment in which to live and play.

Workforce development has been the business community’s top concern for more than a decade. Employees with a get-it-done work ethic are in high demand, and companies today often move to where they can find workers rather than expecting workers to relocate to jobs. The majority of Kentuckians are only a generation or two from living on a farm, where work and problem solving are deeply ingrained in daily life.

As the pandemic raised demand for good workers even higher, Kentucky has had its two best years in history for economic development and 2023 is likely to continue the momentum. Economic developers report the pipeline of projects by companies actively planning to grow is very full.

The flow of projects the past two years has taken much of the state’s prepared sites. However, Kentucky is doing a better job than nearly every other state in bringing more land to market. The Kentucky Association for Economic Development assembled a great “toolbox” for local ED shops a few years ago, and the General Assembly last year appropriated $200 million specially targeted to help.

When The Lane Report spoke with U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers recently (see pages 20-38 in this issue), he said companies around the country are reaching out to him about locating in Eastern Kentucky for its workforce, particularly its thousands of former coal miners, most of whom have stayed near their beloved Kentucky homes.

They stay in part because the “authentic natural experience” that today’s traveler craves is right outside our doors. Alongside our 70,000 family farms are distilleries, more waterways than any state but Alaska, mountains, forests, trails, caves, fresh food presented in creative ways, bluegrass music in its purest form, horse farms and racing, and more. Whether you prefer excitement or serenity, it’s here.

Public and private sectors are putting serious dollars into building Kentucky into a serious ag-tech hub, having realized the right natural and human assets for this are here. Major industrial conglomerates are building electric-vehicle battery plants and their supply chains in the highest concentration in the world here. The world’s largest spirits firms are attaching to Kentucky’s bourbon industry as fast as they can.

The group working to develop a major resort on the edge of Red River Gorge see it as the gateway to Appalachia and its rural culture, which remains genuine and priceless. When outside experts recently assessed growth strategies for Commerce Lexington, they advised efforts to get area residents to be proactively proud of the high quality of life they enjoy—and to share that with visitors.
The secret sauce to our emerging economic success has been right here all along.