The five Kentucky River Counties associated with WAVE (Ballard, Carlisle, Fulton, Hickman and McCracken) possess tremendous assets for the individuals who live here and the businesses who choose to operate in the region. During four WAVE focus group studies, the following regional assets were highlighted:
ASSET - Small Town Compassion
One theme ran consistent through all four focus groups – from the answers to the introductory big-picture questions through the specific discussions in asset categories: Residents of the River Counties love the small-town life: the beautiful rural settings, the absence of crime and traffic, the slower, gentler quality of life. But most of all, it’s the community spirit of compassion that drives their love of the region: The River County culture is the living embodiment of the Scriptural admonition to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Residents love the easy, natural interactions and civil courtesies, and understand that in times of hardship and emergency, their fellow neighbors will have their back. They are anxious for growth and opportunity, but never want to lose that small-town compassionate spirit. As one participant described their community, “it’s almost Mayberry,” and as others shared, “I know who’s pumping their gas next to me at the gas station.”
ASSET - Location, Location, Location
If a strategic planner were looking for the perfect location to capture U.S. economic development posed by the Panama Canal Expansion, she’d likely select the River County region. Situated at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, the region is ideally located to serve as a center of export and import commerce between the Gulf of Mexico and American Midwest and Northeast corridors. From New Orleans to the Ohio River, there are no locks or dams on the Mississippi, meaning relatively unimpeded travel for barges and shipping; and at the confluence of the two rivers in Wickliffe, water access is naturally dredged with sufficient depth for the new paradigm of larger barges and container-on-vessel shipping. Further, the region is located in the center of the country, just a short drive to major U.S. population centers including St. Louis, Memphis, Nashville and Evansville: Indeed 67% of the nation’s population lives within eight hours of the region, meaning that the region is an ideal spot for logistics and distribution activity. Half a million people reside within a 70-mile radius, including more than 65,000 workers in industrial-related occupations. Fulton is the site of both a Canadian National Railroad rail yard, as well as a flag stop for Amtrak passenger rail service, meaning that there is potential for further expansion in service of regional port operations. There is also considerable hope that the expansion of I-69 will benefit the region’s infrastructure, especially once the prospective bridge is built in Henderson, linking Kentucky to Indiana.
ASSET - First-Quality Education
In stark contrast to the stereotype of rural, small-town America, the River Counties boast a highly-respected, world-class public education system, with all schools ranked above average (some near the top 5% among their peers statewide), and most towns already validated for workforce quality through their designation by the state as “Work Ready Communities.” Industries and businesses looking to locate in the area will have the comfort of knowing that their employees’ children will receive a first-class education. Many credit outstanding leadership in the school systems, as well as strong relationships with Murray State University and the Western Kentucky Community and Technical College. However, the key asset is strong and deep support from the community, both in terms of parent participation, and the generosity of private philanthropists, most prominently, Robbie and Lisa Rudolph’s Four Rivers Foundation which since 2009 has helped ensure that all local high school students have free access to college dual-credit programs and has better prepared students for post-secondary training and assisted them in the transition to a career. Vocational schools have been developed in the area; there is a strong presence of certified welders: Indeed, in Ballard County, every child attends a class at the career and technical center. Further, Murray State and WKCTC have initiated higher education curricula that will be valuable for river-related industries, including agriculture technology and logistics and supply change management. Establishment of the new Emerging Technology Center on WKCTC’s Paducah campus and the Skilled Craft Training Center in Graves County have helped ensure that the region boasts state-of-the-art workforce training facilities.
ASSET - New Economy Development
There have been successful and solid local efforts to take advantage of the technological revolution posed by the 21st century information age economy. Several towns in the region such as Cunningham and Wickliffe boast of affordable, high-speed broadband, allowing residents and entrepreneurs to access the information superhighway, helping overcome economic disadvantages posed by the region’s geographical remoteness and challenged physical infrastructure. An existing natural gas pipeline that runs through Carlisle County offers the potential for low-cost energy to the region, and the Verso paper mill site in Ballard might be capable of generating hydro-power. Fulton and Hickman have launched efforts to reap the economic rewards and high-skilled workforce development opportunities created by energy efficiency initiatives in public buildings; while many regional Pipefitter laborers have been trained to work on energy efficiency improvement projects. The Purchase Area Development District has launched an underused, but successful small business development center. And Murray State has been working with community leaders in developing entrepreneurship programs to assist with the development of small businesses. Meanwhile “old economy” small businesses that could serve river traffic needs remain present in the region – from an Arlington saw mill to Carlisle County’s manufactured storage building facility to Hickman County’s Ingram Barge and Peerless Premier stove manufacturer to Wickliffe’s new ARCO Construction facility. The region is ideally situated to serve as a manufacturing center – or product and service support center -- for the new larger types of ships that will result from the Panama Canal Expansion, including container-on-vessels which are the subject of considerable support from the US Department of Transportation.
ASSET - Extraordinary Ecology and Culture
River County residents could not be more proud of the extraordinary natural environment in which they live – and in fact, many claim that the opportunities to hike, fish, hunt and enjoy the natural landscapes are some of the main reasons why they continue to call the area their home. They are also quite proud of recent multi-county efforts to promote tourism, particularly KYGRRO, the Kentucky Great River Road project, that has fostered coordinated efforts to bring out-of-state visitors to some of the region’s great attractions, from Wickliffe Mounds, to the Trail of Tears, to Columbus-Belmont State Park, to the Dorena-Hickman Ferry, one of the few remaining riverboat ferries in the country. The region features some of the nation’s premier goose and duck hunting, bike tours, beautiful horse trails and opportunities for ATV riding and racing. And cultural opportunities extend far beyond natural resources: The Hickman County Historical Society is a national center for genealogy research; the National Civil War Heritage Trail is a scenic journey for history buffs; local museums commemorate African-American history, archaeology, and veterans; and the calendar is packed with arts fairs and festivals celebrating chickens, monster catfish, water fowl, bananas, pecans, barbeque, and Civil War heritage.