Kentucky is well-known for its “bluegrass” lands, horses, bountiful agriculture and mountainous hills in the Appalachian region of America. A region historically challenged economically. But today, it is a region on the cusp of new economic opportunity. I recently saw first-hand how the region’s collaborative approach to economic development is unleashing a blazoned entrepreneurial spirit that serves as a model for re-establishing the relevance of rural America to our global economy.
Stanford, Kentucky, founded in 1775 is the second oldest settlement in Kentucky. It is a community of roughly 3,500 residents with a median household income of $30,000. It is a community where residents work hard to support their families and improve their quality of life. It is also a community that in 2009 was threatened with the potential loss of local employment as a result of anticipated layoffs at a local auto-parts manufacturing plant. After struggling to find financial capital to continue operations, the company was finally able to stave off ill-fate when it sought assistance from Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation, the Southeastern Kentucky Economic Development Corporation and USDA Rural Development. Through President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the company was able to secure $9.8 million to protect and create new jobs. Before obtaining the funds, it employed 96; today it has 117 full-time employees and 10 temporary employees and going strong.
As I toured the plant and spoke with the Owner, Masato Sugimura and the employees of Lincoln Manufacturing USA, LLC, it was clear that the survival prospects of this rural Kentucky plant would have been grim had it not been for the support it received through the Recovery Act. The key to their success was thinking and working collaboratively to secure the future of their company and the livelihood for their employees.
Rural America is critical to the success of our nation. All of us depend on rural America for food, water, energy and much more – and too many folks around the country don’t realize or appreciate this. Lincoln Manufacturing is one company that would not be where it is today had it not been for the historic investments President Obama’s Administration made during the height of the “Great Recession”. The stakes couldn’t be higher as we enter 2013 and continue our efforts to work with Congress toward passage of a comprehensive, long-term Food, Farm and Jobs Bill to help USDA support these types of efforts for businesses in rural America.
Southeast of Stanford in the community of London, Kentucky a different type of collaboration is helping budding entrepreneurs build businesses in remote areas throughout the Appalachian region of Kentucky. Through the Kentucky Highlands Innovation Center, start-up businesses are learning how to utilize cloud-computing based accounting, where they connect virtually to a secured data base of accounting services to support their day-to-day business operations. Time spent in the past gathering documents, scheduling time with their Certified Public Account and time away from their business, can now be accomplished in a virtual environment. Originally established through financial support from USDA and other state and Federal resources, the center is now a member of the Kentucky Innovation Network, a network of thirteen innovation centers located throughout the Commonwealth of Kentucky. The London center is a state-of-the-art client facility, providing among other services: e-commerce resources; long-term connection to local/regional economic development organizations; marketing; and access to capital. On the day of my visit, tenant businesses utilizing the center’s services, included a graphic designer, and a web-based health consultant, and other budding businesses. What struck me the most was that these are not only start-up businesses utilizing the center’s services, but they are businesses leveraging the talents and services of other start-up businesses in the center to expand their own business opportunities.
A common thread running through this region is collaboration. Businesses, economic, and community development leaders in Central and Southeastern Kentucky are creating a model of collaborative-leveraging – knowledge, infrastructure and capital access. It is a model that mirrors USDA vision of bringing economic opportunity and an improved quality of life to rural Americans. Kentucky may be best known for having an “Unbridled Spirit”, but in Central and Southeast Kentucky, I would characterize it as an “Unbridled Entrepreneurial Spirit”.
To learn more about USDA business programs click here.