Two of the more successful economic development initiatives in Kentucky in recent years have been the Kentucky Proud effort and the Kentucky Innovation Network. (Disclaimer: I admit bias on the latter: for the past decade I’ve worked for Morehead State University as part of the Kentucky Innovation Network)
Kentucky Proud has served to bring together passionate food producers from across Kentucky and allowed them a ready marketing tool through the bully pulpit of the state.
The other program, the Kentucky Innovation Network, provides business consulting to a wide variety of small businesses and seeds initiatives such as angel investment networks in several Kentucky cities (including, most recently, in Ashland).
These efforts represent the best of Kentucky’s economic development initiatives. One uses the power of the bully pulpit to promote homegrown (literally) Kentucky industry that cannot be replicated in other areas. The other provides specialized business consulting at no cost to the clients and creates and supports unique entrepreneurial initiatives across Kentucky.
In Eastern Kentucky, these programs can serve as models for an approach that has seldom been tried in our region: heritage-based entrepreneurial development.
When most people think of economic development and East Kentucky they usually think in one of the following mindsets:
Industrial recruitment: Let’s build our industrial parks and attract factories to grow our economy.
Urban development: Let’s build enough four lanes and airports and become a booming semi-urban community.
Arts Development: Let’s build up our fine arts and culinary attractions and become another Asheville.
Admittedly, some of each of these approaches has merit, but what does each have in common? They rely on outside force and discount our own greatest natural resources: our people, our heritage, and our natural beauty.
I’d like to see East Kentucky give some thought to a strategy that makes the most of our native population, our fascinating and eclectic heritage, and the natural areas that have facilitated both. Such a strategy would start with the premise that we have to create products, services and attractions that can lure a national, even a global market. Consider some of the things that have fixated the world about our region: the Hatfield and McCoy feuds, moonshine, the mountaineer stereotype, natural products along the lines of those found in the Foxfire Books, our rugged terrain as it relates to our rugged people, our food; each of these can be marketable and bundled into services, goods, or attractions by our own people with the right entrepreneurial support.
Two final points: first, entrepreneurship means utilizing the right business models. In other words, we don’t have to build another state park or another Dollywood. One of the more intriguing Hatfield & McCoy attractions, for example, is “app” based. Second, our heritage is not readily embraced by all our people. Feuding and ‘shining, for example… but if we’re going to count on our heritage to attract new customers, we have to be ready to embrace both the good, bad, and, especially, the interesting facets of this region.
Johnathan Gay is the Director of the Kentucky Innovation Network office at Morehead State University (www.kyinnovation.com). The opinions expressed here are his own.