The Murray-Calloway County Chamber of Commerce recently took a trip with nearly 30 community leaders to Frankfort to discuss state-level issues that could impact the region. On Sounds Good, Matt Markgraf speaks with local chamber president and CEO Aaron Dail about some of the economic development issues that emerged out of the meeting and how to address some of the needs moving forward.
The trip included a cross-section of community leaders representing Murray State, small business, large industry, government sector and the nonprofit sector, Dail said. The interest centered around how 'big issues' at the state level could impact Murray and Calloway County. It was also an effort to build relationships with state officials, he said.
A joint luncheon included members of the Paducah and Owensboro Chambers and speaker Governor Matt Bevin, who discussed economic development and, Dail said, empathized with the western Kentucky culture of 'feeling left out.' He said Bevin also recognized Murray State and the transportation network (I-69 and 641 South) as regional assets.
"The biggest outcome I think the governor really hit on at the luncheon along with us is west Kentucky is talking with a voice together. We may have different priorities and different functions but we're getting folks together to go talk collectively to west Kentucky legislators to others who are going to be voting and advocating for or against certain pieces of legislation," Dail said.
Working together as a regional entity comes with strengths and complexities, he said. "The chambers of commerce are now even more so than before working together and trying to push for regional conversations, regional impact in representing not only the counties that our various chambers serve, but more importantly the idea of economic prosperity." Dail noted the 'West Kentucky Regional Chamber Alliance" which has been up and running for the past five or six years and includes 10 to 12 area chambers. Initiatives include I-69 and other pieces like the lock and dam effort and Murray state as an "economic engine."
As the region is prime to grow, addressing workforce development needs has become a major priority. Dail said this is the number-one issues in Kentucky at the Frankfort level, along with addressing the pension. Engineering has become a major focus of Bevin's administration, he said. "Governor Bevin spoke a great deal about how does Kentucky become known for engineering?' and how do we become known just as California is known for Silicon Valley and the tech industry - how do we get known for that?'"
Dail said this focus has pushed people to re-think economic development and the role of college not as just a means to train the next workforce but also to learn and grow, to become an adult and critical thinker.
The question becomes 'how do we train someone quickly in a highly demanded skill?' In retraining a workforce to do things like computer programming and coding? "It takes a long time, just like it takes four years to get a college degree, it takes a while to get trained on some specific equipment and other things that occur within these industries, so those types of programs are getting attention. they're also getting resources," Dail said. He pointed to the Kentucky FAME program, which he said has become a hot topic for companies in Calloway County.
"The day of industry being dark, dungeon, dirty is long gone. It's a new type of economy and especially with companies now focusing on that workforce development you can do exactly what you want to do and be aspirational and have a good quality of life by working in various industries specifically in west Kentucky," he said. -- "There's a quiet talent war going on in Murray and Calloway County specifically. People are finding and wanting to find those people that are going to take over their companies, be the next manager, VP, president, whatever they may be. So they're beginning to figure out succession planning is pretty important right now," he said.
On the flip side, there is opportunity to look at the type of businesses and local market makeup that have specific areas of interest tied to demanded workforce areas (like computing and coding). Then infrastructure comes into question - does Murray (for instance) have the right internet capabilities or infrastructure needs to attract business? Is the community a good return on investment?
Developing a skilled workforce is something Frankfort has been involved in through efforts like the Work Ready Skills Initiative, encouraging high schools to work with postsecondary and business communities. McCracken and Caldwell Counties recently received several million dollars for projects under the $100 million umbrella.
"What Paducah wins we also win and what Hoptown wins we also win as well. The whole concept of the rising rises all ships comes to mind, but I also add the caveat 'that are seaworthy.'" He said the ships have to be able to float and steer the course once risen.
Soft Skills and Higher Ed
In the Murray Calloway County Chamber 2016 Public Policy Survey businesses identified "applicants lacking soft skills (i.e., reliability, professionalism, etc.)" as "the biggest obstacle" when hiring. (Second was "lacking technical skills"). Dail said he is a product of soft skills training through Murray State University's Department of Organizational Communication, which taught him how to interact with people, learning the importance of a career, showing up on time, how to lead and manage, how to present yourself at work.
There has been concern among members of the Murray State community and in the Kentucky higher ed community over a 'disinvestment' in public higher ed. Dail said he feels that Murray State is an "economic driver" for the region and provides "an economic floor" that prevents many issues and creates other successes.
"I think what you're seeing now is a battle for the soul of higher education in communities and it's a race to relevancy, it's a race to significance, it's understanding what those impacts are," Dail said. "...but at the same time, people are beginning to look at return on investment, be it right, wrong or indifferent, and especially given the state pension issues, there are some major decisions that are going to have to happen over the next couple of years. that doesn't make higher ed more important or less important, it just makes it part of the conversation with all these things on the table."
While he prefers 'policy over politics,' Dail said he feels protective of the funding. "The idea that Murray State was and is a big part of our conversation I hope resonated not only with the meetings that we had in Frankfort but also to our local folks."
Murray State President Dr. Bob Davies joined the Frankfort group and has talked about the merits of public higher education as a place to learn soft skills.
Internet infrastructure is an issue in some parts of Calloway County, and has been an issue in rural parts of Kentucky. Dail said it's not so much a matter of how quickly one can buy things online or playing games online but in the sharing of information. For instance, if a healthcare provider needs to send an image to another provider, how long does that take? He said he wants to make sure the infrastructure is in place fo businesses considering coming to the region.
Widening 641 South
Calloway County had funding approved for expanding 641 South, but had been affected by the 'Pause 50' initiative, which Dail said was an area of discussion in Frankfort. In speaking with Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Chief of Staff Asa James Swan, Dail said the state is working on a percentage-based 'prioritization model' that takes into account different areas of focus and criteria including safety concerns, congestion issues, economic development opportunities, asset management, cost/benefit to the state, etc.
"I think what they are trying to do, and they being Asa, is pull out the politics as much as possible from projects and put it on priorities based on data and facts. So that way a presentation could be made based on need, demand and want not just who you know, how you know them and what you can do to get it done," Dail said. "641 is the most important economic driver right now for us to advocate for. And it's expensive. And there are other projects out there just as worthy potentially to compete for in other parts of the state."
Dail added that the Purchase Area Development District has placed widening 641 South as its top priority project in the region. While there isn't a timeline, Dail said there is cautious optimism for a 2021 goal.
Most of the meetings involved cabinet positions, but on the agenda was AT&T of Kentucky. Dail said they were sponsors of the event and spoke on some workforce infrastructure issues as well as telecom reform.
Issues in agriculture were also discussed. "Agriculture in Calloway County is the third largest economic engine or driver right behind home sales and auto sales. Agriculture is right there and so it has huge ripple effects when we have a terrible rain season or a great season for farmers." The average acreage of a farm in Kentucky is 160 versus the national average of 400, Dail said, adding that the smaller scale means farmers tend to focus on matters related to quality.
Dail said the next step is to unpack the information from Frankfort and gather feedback from the attendees. "I think the big takeaway was there was a hunger and a need for us to go to Frankfort collectively and divide and conquer." He said making the trip and having meaningful discussions with influential decision-makers went a long way.