West Liberty’s tornado recovery plan a model for other towns

May 11, 2013

Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Morgan County’s strategic plan for rebuilding from a March 2012 tornado includes encouraging super energy-efficient construction of new homes and commercial buildings to lower operating costs. Habitat for Humanity has already built several such homes in Morgan and neighboring Rowan counties. This one was under construction in January. Photo by Tom Eblen


Each time I have visited West Liberty since the devastating tornado, people have expressed determination to rebuild. But they didn’t just want to put things back the way they were; they wanted to use the disaster to reposition their community for the future.

The Morgan County seat had been hurting for years before the twister, which killed six people on March 2, 2012. West Liberty was like so many other small towns that have struggled to adapt to the loss of cash crops and factories.

Last week, after more than a year of study and work, West Liberty leaders unveiled a new strategic plan for their community. It is a creative, forward-looking plan designed to attract national attention and support. If successful, it could serve as a model for struggling small towns throughout Kentucky and across America. (Click here to download a copy of the plan.)

“I’m very excited about it,” said Hank Allen, CEO of Commercial Bank in West Liberty and president of the Morgan County Chamber of Commerce. “There is such a will to rebuild, to not only get back to where we were but to be better than we were.”

One key aspect of the plan follows the lead of Greensburg, Kansas, which was wiped out by a 2007 tornado and attracted national attention by rebuilding using the latest energy-efficient technology.

West Liberty’s energy-efficient reconstruction plans include replacement houses with “passive” design and construction, which can cut energy costs as much as 70 percent over conventional construction. Habitat for Humanity has already built several such homes in the area.

The downtown business district also would be rebuilt using energy-efficient construction, including a geothermal loop that many buildings could share to lower their heating and cooling costs.

Allen says he thinks that will be one of the biggest factors in recreating a viable downtown. Rent was cheap in the old buildings the tornado blew away. But reconstruction will be expensive, pushing rents beyond what many mom-and-pop businesses can afford.

Commercial Bank is kicking off the geothermal loop as part of its headquarters reconstruction. Allen said designs are almost complete for a new bank building that should be certified LEED Gold. The pre-tornado bank building cost about $4,000 to $5,000 a month to heat and cool, but Allen estimates the new one will cost about $1,500 a month.

The bank building will include about 1,800 square feet of incubator space on its first floor to help small local businesses get back on their feet, Allen said.

The strategic plan also calls for encouraging downtown to be rebuilt with mixed-use structures housing businesses, offices, restaurants and apartments. That would create a more lively downtown with lower rents because of more efficient use of space.

Plans also call for installing free wireless service downtown to attract businesses and people in a region where wi-fi availability is now limited.

The strategic plan’s economic development initiatives have a big focus on eco-tourism, built around Morgan County’s natural beauty and local assets such as the Licking River, Cave Run and Paintsville lakes, and nearby destinations such as the Red River Gorge.

There would be encouragement for entrepreneurs to start businesses focusing on kayaking, rock climbing, hiking, canoeing, fishing and hunting. Plans also call for developing walking and biking trails along the Licking River through West Liberty.

Other economic development ideas in the plan also focus on existing strengths, such as trying to use the local ambulance service and hospital to develop new methods for rural health-care delivery.

The strategic plan grew out of a partnership among the city, Morgan County, local businesses, Morehead State University’s Innovation and Commercialization Center and the nonprofit Regional Technology and Innovation Center.

Midwest Clean Energy Enterprise LLC of Lexington was a consultant on the process. Jonathan Miller, a clean-energy advocate and former state treasurer, has been retained to help raise money nationally for the effort by promoting it as a model for small-town revitalization.

The Morgan County Community Fund, an affiliate of the Blue Grass Community Foundation, has been set up to help collect and distribute donations for the rebuilding effort.

These efforts got a big jump-start in February, when Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers announced a package of about $30 million in federal, state and private money for various rebuilding projects.

“That really opened people’s eyes to what is possible,” Allen said of the financial package. “As a community, we must think really, really large. But we have a long way to go.”

Idea Festival: Unlocking secrets to ‘deep innovation’

September 23, 2011

IBM had Think Pads long before the invention of the laptop computer that now goes by that name. The original Think Pads were leather-bound pads of paper that IBM employees were given by management, beginning in 1923, to record their ideas and inspirations.

David Barnes, an IBM executive whose official title is “technology evangelist”, used the example to explain that innovation isn’t so much about a company’s technology as its attitude. He spoke at the Idea Festival on Friday about how to create and foster business innovation.

Too many companies are unwilling to trust employees enough to give them the time and flexibility to think creatively — or support innovation and new ideas when they come out of the rank-and-file.

“Too many companies are looking quarter-to-quarter; they are not looking long-term,” Barnes said. “They pretend they’re interested in innovation, but they’re not.”

Also talking about innovation was Heather Howell of Rooibee Red Tea, a Louisville-based organic tea company. The keys to her company’s success: “Get to know your customer. Be passionate.”

Howell said creating an innovative company is only possible if you trust employees and give them the freedom to innovate.

“Give them the leash to be creative,” she said. “The best thing I ever did was to not follow the rules.”

Advice for Kentucky from business guru Saul Kaplan

February 14, 2011

Wait for others to do it, and it won’t get done. That old saying might not have the same ring to it as “United we stand, divided we fall,” but it could just as easily be Kentucky’s motto.

Increasingly, technology- enabled entrepreneurs are taking a different path. Rather than waiting for big companies, government or established organizations to figure out how to build a 21st-century economy in Kentucky, they’re trying to do it themselves.

They received some encouragement last week from one of the nation’s popular entrepreneurship gurus, Saul Kaplan of the Business Innovation Factory in Providence, R.I.

During a whirlwind 28-hour trip, Kaplan met with city and business leaders in Lexington and Louisville. He talked to entrepreneurs and business students in both cities, and to some who drove in from as far away as Cleveland, Columbus, Pittsburgh and West Virginia.

Kaplan created the non-profit Business Innovation Factory in 2005 as a laboratory for entrepreneurs working on “areas of high social impact,” such as health care, education and energy. Before that, he was a strategy consultant in the health care industry and executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corp.

Kaplan’s trip to Kentucky was organized by Eric Patrick Marr of The Lexenomics Group, a non-profit economic development organization. Kaplan donated his time, and Randall Stevens of the Lexington business incubator Base 163 paid for his travel.

“The visit was fantastic,” Kaplan told me as he was leaving to fly home Tuesday. “I was pleasantly surprised by the momentum here. There’s definitely the makings of a very entrepreneur-oriented economy.”

Kaplan’s message was that innovation and entrepreneurship must be central to any economic development strategy. And like any consultant, he loves buzzwords. His favorites are: connect, inspire and transform.

“You need to get innovators from across all the silos in your community to communicate and collaborate more effectively,” he said. The next step is inspiring creative people with stories of successful entrepreneurs. Finally, he said, dramatic transformation is required to create a robust, sustainable economy and address many of society’s biggest challenges.

“Incremental change isn’t going to create the economic future that this community wants and needs,” he said. “How can you turn your community into a real-world lab oratory, a place that celebrates experimentation, where people are willing and able to try new things, to try new ideas … to determine what works and what doesn’t work?”

Elder care in Kentucky is one area ripe for innovative problem solving and entrepreneurship, Kaplan noted. The state has an aging population and a growing health care infrastructure. Plus, Louisville is home to the nation’s largest elder-care companies.

“We know that the majority of the elder population want to age in place in their own homes with dignity, but the system wasn’t designed that way,” he said. “How can we create a new set of solutions and new approaches to do that? Those solutions could create new jobs and businesses.”

Kaplan said he sees several assets Kentucky can build on. First, the Lexington-Louisville-Northern Kentucky region is big enough to have a critical mass of important assets, but it isn’t too big.

Second, he said, “It has incredible quality of place. I could see it the minute I left the airport. And quality of place is the best asset any community can have. Everything should be viewed through the lens of how do we enhance and protect that quality of place, and at the same time figure out how to unleash entrepreneurial innovation.”

Finally, Kaplan said, the recent elections of Lexington and Louisville mayors with innovative business backgrounds offers a unique opportunity for economic transformation.

“Having spent time with both mayors, I think they get it,” he said. “I think they want to catalyze the kind of entrepreneurial economy and community we’ve talked about here over the past couple of days. If I were living here, I would be optimistic.”

Kaplan said top-down economic development planning — the “bring in the big outside company” incentive strategy that Kentucky has failed at more often than it has succeeded — isn’t the way of the future.

“Bring the entrepreneur and the innovator to the center of the economic development conversation,” he said. “And tie that conversation to solving real social challenges within the community.”

Lexington to host Creative Cities Summit in April

January 8, 2010

Saying 2010 will be “Lexington’s year to shine,” Mayor Jim Newberry and Gov. Steve Beshear announced Friday that the city would host the Creative Cities Summit five months before the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

The April 7-9 conference will be both an opportunity to showcase Lexington as an innovative city and to learn strategies for improving the city’s economy and quality of life, the mayor said.

It will feature several prominent speakers and is expected to attract about 600 attendees, about two-thirds of whom will come from the region.

“This is an exciting opportunity for Lexington,” Beshear said at a news conference. “This summit will have an impact not just on Lexington but on the entire commonwealth.”

Speakers include: “Creative Class” author Richard Florida; “Next Generation” consultant Rebecca Ryan, who has been working with Commerce Lexington; Ben Self, a Lexington native and resident who is a co-founder of Blue State Digital, which created President Obama’s online campaign strategy; Charles Landry, author of The Art of City Making; and Bill Strickland, a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant recipient from Pittsburgh and author of Making the Impossible Possible.

Previous Creative Cities Summits have been in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 2004 and Detroit in 2008, said founder Peter Kageyama. Downtown developer Phil Holoubek is leading the Lexington organizing effort.

Sessions will focus on such issues as economic development, developing young professionals, nurturing technology entrepreneurs, the black creative class and developing social innovation.

“This gives Lexington an opportunity to expand our brand,” Holoubek said.

He said organizers have raised more than $200,000 in cash and in-kind donations so far to put on the conference, with the biggest gift coming from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The conference is open to the public. For more information, see: www.creativecitieslexington.com

Small firm creates a niche in elite art and design

October 17, 2009

The old building doesn’t look like much, standing across East Third Street from a demolition site and the King Cobras motorcycle club. A small sign in a window behind a steel-bar security door says: LOT Parrish Rash.

Since early this year, it has been the Land of Tomorrow, an occasional gallery, and the workshop of Parrish Rash & van Dissel, a small company with big ambitions.

PR&vD hopes to encourage artists and industrial designers around the world to innovate by creating new and more profitable ways for them to produce and market their work.

At the company’s workshop last week, there were three projects under way: A high-design chaise being made of Styrofoam and urethane for a Vienna art museum; a stage set for The xx, a British rock band; and another UK professor’s project that involves creating a LED lighting system for a large model of a planned community in China that will be exhibited in Germany.

Upcoming work includes a piece for a show at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and two pieces for a show at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Later this month, LOT will bring collectors from across the country together with an international group of designers represented by the NOUS Gallery of London, England. The event will include a mixed-media show called Boys and Their Toys, which will be on display from Oct. 30 to Nov. 8. The opening reception Oct. 30 at 7 p.m. is open to the public.

Why would these collectors and designers travel thousands of miles for an event in Lexington?

“High-end collectors are looking for new places to discover work,” said LOT founder Drura Parrish. The event will include a dinner, an afternoon at Keeneland and plenty of bourbon. “You sell the destination, not the art.”

It also didn’t hurt that one of the British gallery’s principals, designer Melissa Woolford, is originally from Evansville, Ind., across the Ohio River from Parrish’s hometown of Henderson.

Good connections and a “why not?” attitude have enabled Parrish and his business partner, Rives Rash, to build an international reputation over the past six years by working with contemporary artists and architects to produce their designs. Their work has appeared at such venues as New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Vienna’s MAK Center and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Parrish and Rash are faculty members at the University of Kentucky’s College of Design. They’re also workshop wizards who never outgrew playing with sticks and glue.

“The reputation got out there that if you wanted to do something crazy, there’s these guys from Virginia and Kentucky who will help you do something crazy,” said Parrish, who, like Rash, earned a graduate degree from the Southern California Institute of Architecture.

During the past 15 years, technology has revolutionized architecture and design. Parrish, 33, and Rash, 30, have created a niche by exploring the possibilities of new design geometries and materials.

The company’s newest partner, Bart van Dissel, 55, a former Harvard Business School professor and McKinsey & Co. consultant, sees an opportunity for PR&vD to change the economics of design by connecting designers, manufacturers and customers.

That means working with designers to build prototypes and figure out manufacturing processes and costs. PR&vD would do some manufacturing itself and outsource some work to other Kentucky manufacturers.

In addition to fine art, PR&vD is interested in making furniture and household items — really, any object that might be improved by innovative design.

“There needs to be a democratization of design,” Parrish said. “People used to not give a damn about design because they couldn’t afford it.” That is changing as high-design items show up on the shelves of such retailers as IKEA and Target.

Designers haven’t been well-served by traditional retail models, where mass production and big sales volume are necessary and retailers get as much as 60 percent of the price. It gives designers little incentive to innovate or take risks.

For that reason, PR&vD also is interested in exploring new retail models, from online sales to distribution through museum stores.

“The key point is to shift the way the designers do business,” Parrish said. “Our paradigm is simple: Put designers first, and they become the brand.”

PR&vD has begun making several products for sale on www.etsy.com, an arts and crafts site. They include flatware, lamps, chairs and decorative items made from a mix of urethane and tree limbs salvaged from last winter’s ice storm.

There are limits to what can be made in PR&vD’s rented workshop, which also must accommodate the building owner’s bass boat. It is moved around the room as space is needed.

“It adds soul to the workshop,” Parrish said of the bass boat.

“And it reminds us that we don’t go fishing enough,” van Dissel added.

Parrish thinks Kentucky is an ideal place for the kind of creative, specialized manufacturing that PR&vD has in mind. The state has a wealth of aluminum and plastics fabricators who located here for the auto industry but could use more work.

“Kentucky, more than any place I know, is tied to making and doing,” he said. “If we don’t do it as a profession, we often do it as a hobby. It’s just what we do.”

After all, look what PR&vD has done so far with limited equipment in an old building on East Third Street. In the land of tomorrow, what’s important are ideas — and people with the knowledge and connections to make them work.

Kentucky vision: Education, innovation, branding

November 11, 2008

Kentucky’s potential for success in a global economy might not be obvious to people who have lived here all of their lives.

Pearse Lyons, an Irishman who heads the animal nutrition company Alltech, says he sees it. And he is convinced it can be achieved if Kentucky invests in education, focuses on scientific innovation and markets its brand.

Lyons is barnstorming the state this week to deliver that message in a series of public lectures. He began Monday in Glasgow, then drove to Murray and Owensboro. He plans to make six more speeches around the state Tuesday and Wednesday.

Dr. Pearse Lyons

Dr. Pearse Lyons

Lyons, who started Alltech in Jessamine County 28 years ago, said Kentucky has some of the same advantages that helped launch Ireland’s economy in the 1980s. Both places have about 4 million residents, and their governments and universities are small enough to be accessible.

Lyons thinks Kentucky needs more public-private partnerships to invest in education and innovation. He hopes other companies will join Alltech in funding Margin of Excellence scholarships at the universities of Kentucky and Louisville to attract and retain the bright minds who will create tomorrow’s technology.

Earning a Ph.D. degree often requires a student to study for five years while living on a $20,000 annual university stipend. After graduation, first jobs don’t pay much.

“Who in their right mind would do that?” Lyons asked during a telephone interview on the road between Glasgow and Murray. “Why does Ph.D. have to stand for Poor, Hungry and Driven?”

The Margin of Excellence scholarship provides a $40,000 annual stipend on top of the university money for up to five years, plus an additional $10,000 for published research and another $10,000 if the student stays in Kentucky for three years after graduation.

“We’ve stepped up and done the first one,” which went to UK animal nutrition student Anne Koontz, Lyons said. “We’ve got a couple of people to step up and do the second and third. What we need is like-minded business people and businesses to step up and say, ‘Let’s create the single best Ph.D. program in the world.'”

Lyons, whose company operates in 113 countries, said such scholarships could be an inexpensive way for companies to do critical research. “You couldn’t hire a technician for $40,000 a year,” he said. “And here you’re going to get the brightest and the smartest focusing on your problem. It’s a no-brainer.”

Technology could allow Kentucky to keep building on traditional strengths, such as agriculture and energy. For example, the horse industry could fund a Ph.D. student interested in figuring out how to capture methane from manure. Coal companies could fund students to study ways to create clean-coal technology by capturing carbon dioxide.

Despite the economic slump, Lyons thinks this is a good time for companies to invest in the future. For example, he said, Alltech has secured government grants to help build a bio-refinery in Springfield that will create energy from renewable cellulose, such as corn cobs, switch grass and kudzu.

“Let’s focus on the problems of Kentucky,” he said. “Let’s focus on making those problems opportunities.”

Good marketing is vital, he said, for a state as well as a company. Lyons thinks Alltech’s sponsorship of the 2010 FEI World Equestrian Games will be good for marketing his company — and Kentucky. “It’s an incredible opportunity to show Kentucky to the world,” he said.

In some ways, Kentucky has a better image abroad than it does in the United States, thanks to such exports as Thoroughbred horses, bourbon whiskey, bluegrass music and what Lyons calls the “super brands” of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Muhammad Ali.

Good marketing sometimes just means taking advantage of small opportunities. Last Friday night, Lyons was back in Dublin for a black-tie dinner to receive the Foundation Day Medal from his alma mater, University College Dublin. But he didn’t go home alone.

That same evening, Alltech sponsored a recital at the Royal Irish Academy of Music by Everett McCorvey and Tedrin Blair Lindsay of UK Opera Theater, along with four UK students who have won the school’s Alltech-sponsored vocal competition.

After the recital, McCorvey said, he secretly arranged to hurry over to Lyons’ event so he could close the dinner by performing a special arrangement of My Old Kentucky Home with University College’s Choral Scholars.

After the performance, Lyons said, “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

And it exposed 600 influential people in Ireland to a brand: Kentucky.

Lyons’ lectures

Northern Kentucky University, 7:30 a.m.
Student Union, Room 104, Highland Heights
Frazier International History Museum, 11:30 a.m.
829 West Main St., Louisville
(By invitation. Call (502) 625-0080)
KCTCS System Offices, 5:30 pm
300 North Main St., Versailles
Ashland Plaza Hotel, Ashland, 7:30 a.m.
Centre College, Old Carnegie Building, Danville, Noon
(By invitation. Call (859) 238-5218)
Eastern Kentucky University, 5 p.m.
Posey Auditorium, Stratton Building, Richmond