MOREHEAD — It’s perhaps the oldest question at the annual East Kentucky Leadership Conference, which met this week for the 21st time: How can the region attract more jobs from elsewhere.
In 1990, former Gov. Wallace Wilkinson created the East Kentucky Economic Development Job Creation Corp., which supporters say recruited more than 5,100 jobs to 28 counties in the region over the next 14 years. Former Gov. Ernie Fletcher cut off funding for the corporation in 2004 amid questions about its effectiveness and political squabbling within the region about where the jobs went.
Bill Weinberg, a Knott County lawyer and a founding member of the East Kentucky Leadership Foundation that sponsors the conference, pointed out that recruiters can do only so much. Ultimately, companies decide where they want to locate facilities. Appalachian counties are not only competing with each other, but often with bigger metro areas, such as Lexington and Knoxville.
House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins of Sandy Hook said East Kentucky needs its own recruiting arm, because statewide economic development efforts aren’t enough. “We can toot our own horn better than anyone else,” he said.
Attracting outside companies is important. Equally important is helping to foster more local entrepreneurs.
That’s what the Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp. in London has been doing for nearly 40 years. The region needs more emphasis on and training in entrepreneurship, not only at universities and community colleges in elementary schools.
“The culture in Appalachia is if you stay in the community you’re going to go to work for somebody else,” said Jerry Rickett, the president and CEO of Kentucky Highlands. “We have to change that culture.”
Rural Kentucky once could attract jobs with low labor costs. But many of those employers have gone overseas in search of ever-lower labor costs. “Much of Eastern Kentucky is not in a competitive position for industrial recruiting,” Rickett said.
The Internet has made it easier than ever for entrepreneurs to create businesses in eastern Kentucky and sell products and services worldwide. “If you start a business here, the high-paying jobs and equity will stay here,” Rickett said.
Gov. Steve Beshear was to have been the featured speaker at the conference’s dinner Thursday. But that honor fell to Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, a Hazard physician. It was a great platform for a native son, and Mongiardo’s popularity was obvious at the conference that has always leaned heavily Democratic. But more than a few people remarked on the fact that Beshear was the first Democratic governor in the 21-year history of the conference to not attend. Two constitutional officers who have had their eye on the governor’s office also attended: Auditor Crit Luallen, a Democrat, and Secretary of State Trey Grayson, a Republican.
In his remarks, Mongiardo noted that East Kentuckians have always had to stuggle with limited resources, so there’s no reason the region can’t continue making progress in tough economic times. He noted that history remembers people who embrace change, not those who resist it.
Click the arrow below to listen to a 2-minute excerpt from Mongiardo’s speech. He talks about the importance of expanding early childhood education and how information technology can be used to cut healthcare costs.
The conference has always been a forum for discussion, rather than a policy-making meeting. But part of this year’s conference was spent trying to draft a regional platform statement to guide the governor on issues affecting the region. At several sessions, panels went through a draft document and made revisions. The original draft can be downloaded from the East Kentucky Leadership Foundation’s Web site, where it is likely to be updated soon with the revisions.