History repeats itself. For much of the 20th century Ohio was a manufacturing mecca. Its prowess at building things made it a hub for the automobile industry.
As a result, thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of Appalachian folk left their hollers and small towns to get a job “up north.” Both my grandfathers did. My Grandfather Ball commuted weekly to Ohio. My mom remembers the family waking in the wee hours of the morning most Saturdays to go fetch him from a Greyhound bus stop in Williamsburg and bring him home to McCreary County. My dad’s father did much the same from Leslie County. Congressman Hal Rogers often cites his time in Ypsilanti, Michigan as a hard lesson in the need for our region to build its own economy.
Today, Ohio may be on the cusp of a new manufacturing boom: this time in aerospace. Last week the U.S. Department of Commerce designated southern Ohio and northern Kentucky the “Southwest Ohio Aerospace Region”. (Yes, that means there’s another SOAR in town.) The designation brings certain real benefits. Per Commerce: “Eleven federal agencies with $1.3 billion in economic development funds will be able to use the designees’ plans to make targeted investments in demonstrably strong public-private partnerships to strengthen regional manufacturing.”
The vision for this region is to leverage region’s history and current capacity to build an Aerospace Manufacturing Cluster:
“[The] aspiration is for the region to be internationally recognized by the aerospace industry as the place to manufacture parts and engines globally. The region is embarking on this multi-faceted strategy that will grow existing businesses and recruit new industry that will grow jobs and capital investment across the region, ultimately enhancing the USA’s economy and reputation as an aerospace leader.”’
Kentucky is already a leader in aerospace exports, as I’ve written in these pages. We export more aerospace products than anything else, including bourbon and cars. It only makes sense that we try to leverage Ohio’s success to our benefit here in East Kentucky. Could our industrial parks be homes to subcontractors and aerospace manufacturers seeking a lower cost workforce? Potentially.
Another option is for us to try and build aerospace ventures ourselves. Morehead State’s space science program is the crown jewel in our region’s aerospace capacity. Students there are building, helping launch, and then tracking satellites. World class faculty members are constantly being sought out for professional advice. Satellite technologies are being developed. And high school students at Rowan County High are increasingly identifying Space Science as their ambition as they contemplate college.
What’s needed is a strong economic development strategy to pull these pieces together. The Ohio partnership includes some names familiar to East Kentucky. NKU is a partner. They’ve worked well with East Kentucky colleges for years. A less familiar name is the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce; but fear not, that agency will soon be headed by a recovering Harvard professor named Trey Grayson, long a friend to many in the region. Can East Kentucky make a play for its piece of the growing aerospace pie? If not, Ohio may be making a play for its workers.
Johnathan Gay is the Director of the Kentucky Innovation Network office located at Morehead State University. He offers free business consulting and entrepreneurial guidance entrepreneurs and groups in East Kentucky. The opinions expressed here are his own. To contact Johnathan, visit Kyinnovation.com