By Ronnie Ellis/CNHI News Service
Kentucky is a rural state that some see as a virtue and asset. But sometimes it’s also seen as a liability, especially for those interested in economic development.
But not all of Kentucky is rural and the urban parts of the state, perhaps not surprisingly, outpace rural areas in nearly every category: income, health, quality of life. And just because an area is rural doesn’t mean its economy is entirely agricultural. In fact, that’s not the case, according to data supplied by Dr. Alison Davis of the University of Kentucky Agricultural Economics Department.
“It is a disservice to suggest that agriculture is the economic lynchpin for rural areas,” Davis told the Interim Joint Subcommittee on Rural Issues. It is an important component but it is no longer the dominant component, she said.
“It’s possible to generate new economic opportunities but that alone will not create an improved and genuine economic opportunity for our rural Kentuckians.”
Davis said rural communities must create a business community that supports entrepreneurs, “when they succeed and when they fail.” They must invest in their communities rather than simply spend money on them. And she said smaller communities must take a regional approach, working together across county lines to draw employers or encourage existing employers to expand.
“Economic transactions and workforce mobility do not begin, end or follow city limits or county boundaries,” Davis said. Rural counties aren’t large enough to compete on their own and smaller communities don’t have enough leadership and civic infrastructure needed to compete with more urban areas. But they can combine those things in a regional approach among multiple jurisdictions.
Part of that process is to map out a community’s assets and match those to industries or needs which those assets can address. For instance, she said in one community a wine maker had to import labels and the UK agricultural economics team was able to identify and persuade an existing business to begin supplying those labels. That produced lower costs for the wine maker and created jobs at the label supplier.
Davis said rural Kentucky needs three primary things to improve its economic development prospects: a health care system; a drug-free workforce; and a quality education system.
Afterward, Davis conceded that’s almost a description of what rural Kentucky is not. She also said there are many disincentives for work in rural Kentucky: high levels of disability and other forms of federal and state relief.
Davis said attracting health care professionals to rural Kentucky is particularly hard, because people don’t want to live in those rural communities. They want amenities usually found in large communities and they want quality of life opportunities for their families. Youth development is among the things prospective employers often look for when gauging communities for re-location.
Meanwhile, rural Kentucky — especially rural eastern Kentucky — has low education attainment, high rates of drug abuse and poorer health habits.
And statewide economic development policies designed to fit the entire state are likely to fail in rural areas, Davis said. There need to be state policies specifically targeted toward rural communities.
Rep. Mike Denham, D-Maysville, agreed it’s difficult to develop rural economies, but he said that’s no reason Kentucky can’t succeed at it. He laments what he hears from young people he talks to – they tell him they plan to move to urban areas in order to find good jobs.
“We have to confront what’s practical and realistic,” Denham said, “but there is no reason we can’t have the American dream in rural Kentucky. We should be afforded the same opportunities of urban Americans.”
Davis’ department at UK offers help to rural communities through the Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky. A team with experts in strategic planning, economic development and demographics is available to work with smaller communities to develop a plan for economic development.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.