Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

October 21, 2012

Regional effort

The challenge has long been putting good ideas into action

The Independent

ASHLAND — It didn’t take long for Bill Hannah, the new president of the Ashland Alliance to properly identify how this region can be more successful in attracting good-paying jobs. It is by having Tri-State leaders working  together in promoting the region as a single community instead of separate communities in northeastern Kentucky, southern Ohio and western West Virginia.

The new leader of what serves as the chamber of commerce of Boyd and Greenup counties is right of course. And Hannah’s recognition of the need for a more unified approach to economic development in the region is hardly a new idea. It is something that this newspaper and many others have been advocating for at least 30 years.

And just about everyone involved in economic development in this region recognizes the value of a regional approach. We all know that there are scores of people in the Tri-State who live in one state and work in another. We also know that the landing of a major new employer anywhere in the greater Tri-State region benefits the entire area.

But when it comes down to actually developing a regional approach to economic development, the actions of many economic development leaders do not match their words. Why?

 Well, one reason is who signs their paychecks. For example, Bill Dingus, the former leader of Ohio University Southern in Ironton who now heads the chamber of commerce in South Point, has always been a strong advocate of the regional approach to economic development, but when it comes right down to it, his job is to bring jobs to southern Ohio, not western West Virginia and northeastern Kentucky. By the same token, Hannah is expected to lure jobs to EastPark, the Paul Coffey Industrial Park and along the southern bank of the Ohio River, not to Ironton and to Huntington.   

However, Hannah has developed maps of Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia identifying by dots the places where all new businesses and industries have located in the past five years. The maps of all three states share one thing in common that it is easy for even the untrained observer to quickly identify: There is a dearth of dots in the Tri-State portion of all three states.

In fact, only one of those dots landed in Boyd and Greenup counties and three were in the greater northeast portion of the bluegrass, he said, representing roughly 2 percent of the state’s new businesses. “In my business, that’s not real good,” Hannah said. No kidding.

“I firmly believe it could be a lot better,” he said, noting he has become familiar with Kentucky concepts including “the Winchester wall,” and “the golden triangle.” People in this area have made it clear there is “no love from Frankfort,” he said, while his economic-development counterparts in adjacent portions of Ohio and West Virginia have stated they get “no love” from Columbus or Charleston.

“If nobody loves us, why don’t we get together and love each other?” Hannah asked, adding the three states can compete with one another after working together to get business and industry to move into the region. “Once we get their interest then we can fight over who gets it.”

We could not agree more.

Folks in West Virginia have promoted what they call “Advantage Valley” as a way to promote the entire region from Charleston to Portsmouth. The words sound great, but if northeastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia have received any advantages from being part of Advantage Valley, we missed it. From our vantage point, the only reason portions of Ohio and Kentucky are included in Advantage Valley is to make the effort look more like a regional approach than it actually is. Nevertheless, Advantage Valley is a good idea that someone like Hannah could use to put his regional approach into practice. However, the failure of Huntington and Charleston to work together on a reginal airport that would benefit both communities gives us doubts about how much Advantage Valley can accomplish.

Citing the number of area businesses with the words Tri-State or Kyova in the title, Hannah said the area is already poised to be marketed as a region, providing new business or industry with a labor pool of 450,000 employees within a 65-mile range.

“This is not magical, mystical stuff. It’s blocking and tackling,” he said, citing area resources including the Ohio River, Interstate 64, building-ready properties and abundant railroad access. Tri-State Airport is another plus for the region, Hannah said ... If local officials in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia work together, Hannah said the region would also have triple the amount of political pull.

The regional approach is clearly the right way to go, but putting the words into action has always been the problem. Until those involved in economic development in all the states agree to develop a regional plan for economic development and meet regularly to implement it, the regional approach will remain a great idea that will never get past square one.

Maybe Hannah can use the shortage of regional dots on the maps of the three states to convince ares leaders of the high price the entire region is paying by not working closer together. It’s a mighty convincing display.