By Johnathan Gay
As a life long resident of eastern Kentucky, I have often contemplated what makes our part of the Commonwealth so different from others. While the beautiful landscape of our rolling hills and rich Appalachian culture certainly distinguish us from other areas of the country, the economic challenges we face also make us unique.
While it is hard to quantify these challenges due to the multitude of contributors, a good place to start is by looking at our economic standing in comparison to the rest of Kentucky, other states, and the nation as a whole.
It won’t come as a surprise that the level of unemployment in our area is higher than than other areas of the state as well as the national average. In fact, the Kentucky Office of Employment and Training (KOET) found that as of July 2013, Kentucky’s unemployment rate had risen to 8.5 percent (the national average landed at 7.4 percent). The KOET also found that of the ten counties ranking highest for unemployment rates in the state, seven were in eastern Kentucky.
Additionally, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) found that our region had a lower yearly per capita income in 2010 ($27,000) than the state as a whole ($32,000) and a much lower income level than the national average ($40,000). The ARC also classified 93 counties in the 13-state Appalachian region as having a “distressed economic status,” and 36 of those were in eastern Kentucky.
Job losses and low income levels are indicators of not only a struggling economy but more specifically, they mean that entrepreneurs looking to locate to lucrative markets and young professionals searching for career opportunities are also less likely to move to or stay in the area.
But with challenges often come opportunities. So what can eastern Kentucky do to help improve its economic stability, keep businesses and young professionals in the area and attract new industries?
One place to start is by improving our technological infrastructure to support broadband development and increase economic growth. Being connected to the 21st century world of business is a must if we are to flourish in the new economy.
Economic growth, while dependent on various factors, is a product of technological advancement. As new technology is introduced to the market, economic success for both individuals and economies becomes easier and faster. Furthermore, the regions that build the right climate for economic growth are the first to reap economic benefits.
Texas is a prime example of this. In 2010, just one year after the U.S. declared the “economic downturn” a recession, Texas had more jobs than it did before the recession started and the state currently has the lowest unemployment rate of the top ten largest states.
Additionally, in recent years a collection of both small and large tech companies, including Facebook and Apple, have either moved to or opened operations in Texas, most of which came from the tech-hub Silicon Valley in California.
By placing a large focus on technological innovation, investment and advancement, areas like eastern Kentucky can more easily attract new businesses, keep small local businesses in the area and create a more successful local workforce.
Today, instead of seeking out a market place, business owners can bring the market place home. The modern business is no longer limited to the brick-and-mortar storefront and has now moved online, utilizing connectivity and social media to sell products across the globe, seamlessly. Additionally, our youth are no longer limited to the industries in their backyards and can hone skills, learn trades and even gain advanced degrees entirely online.
Areas that support growth in technological infrastructure also have healthier workforces, as hospitals and health care providers have the capability to treat illnesses faster and more effectively with the most innovative health care advancements at their disposal.
By making efforts to increase technological connectivity and invest in broadband infrastructure, eastern Kentucky will create a climate that encourages the growth of its economy.
By incentivizing large companies to locate to the area and encouraging small businesses and talented professionals to stick around, eastern Kentucky will start to see the benefits of economic growth that other states and areas of Kentucky have.
East Kentucky folk have the ability to play in the global economy. Creating the infrastructure will allow them to finally get off the sidelines and into the arena.
*Johnathan Gay is the Co-Chair of Young Professionals of East Kentucky, a founding member of the IT group TechBase10.com and an attorney. He works for Morehead State University