Back in the 19th Century, the Mississippi River furnished an intimate and iconic stage for our nation’s popular culture. In perhaps the greatest American novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, former riverboater Mark Twain captured the journey of Huck racing toward the intersection of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to secure his pal Tom’s freedom from slavery. At that time as well, the Great Mississippi functioned as the country’s economic backbone, with steamboats hustling the exports of the nation’s nascent manufacturing economy toward destinations overseas.
By the 20th century, of course, river traffic began to take a backseat to planes, trains and automobiles. As the millennium concluded, the U.S. manufacturing economy struggled against the duel forces of cheaper international trade and the rapid emergence of a new technology-based information age. The four far-western Kentucky River Counties that abut the Mississippi – Fulton, Hickman, Carlisle and Ballard (the site of the intersection with the Ohio) – naturally suffered, a predicament worsened by the inattention of policymakers and politicians in the state capital, hundreds of miles away.
With the dawn of the 21st century, however, new opportunity has arisen. A major expansion of the Panama Canal – introducing a new lane, doubling the waterway’s capacity, and tripling ship cargo loads – will result in a dramatic increase of cargo ship traffic up the Mississippi to destinations in America’s heartland. Indeed, innovative new vessel technology, favorable federal regulation, and congestion at Western ports, freight rail routes, and on Midwestern roads all have positioned river shipping as preeminently economical, energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly.
Further, our national transformation into an information-based economy poses new opportunity for areas such as the River Counties that are geographically-remote from urban centers. With a lauded public education system, partnerships with nearby Murray State University and West Kentucky Community and Technology College, and the pending expansion of affordable high-speed broadband, the River Counties are well-positioned to attract the high-paying, high-tech jobs of the 21st century.
Most significantly, perhaps, in a system polarized and paralyzed by hyper-partisan, turf-conscious politicians, the four River County Judge-Executives – buoyed by the business and civic leadership of their communities – have banded together to develop a unifying, cohesive strategy – to expand regional assets, capitalize on joint resources and promote the region. This unprecedented, bi-partisan collaboration will help facilitate the navigation of a unique public-private partnership that could capture the state’s, and indeed the national imagination, spurring economic growth and progress to a region that sorely needs it, and one that is ideally positioned for rebirth and revitalization.
On April 1, 2016, the judge executives and economic development directors from each of the four River Counties gathered at the Ballard County Country Club in La Center to interview, and then ultimately hire, CivicPoint to facilitate a multi-year economic development project in the region. CivicPoint, the public affairs affiliate of the law firm Frost Brown Todd, is led in Kentucky by Jonathan Miller, the former State Treasurer and Secretary of the Finance and Administration Cabinet.
On May 26, 2016, the judge executives invited dozens of community leaders to county-based strategic planning sessions to serve as focus groups, tasked with helping design this new economic development project. Using a strategy developed upriver at Northwestern University called Asset-Based Community Development, CivicPoint facilitated four separate brain-storming sessions, in each of the counties, to identify local and regional assets and liabilities, and to develop plans to foster cooperation among the counties and economic growth to the region and each of the communities.
One of the key recommendations for action was the establishment of a project Steering Committee, an informal governing body to direct Phase One actions, and ensure implementation of the Strategic Plan. The committee includes committed public sector and private institution champions who have committed to WAVE for the long haul, and who have pledged to facilitate the involvement and support of the region’s constituents. The Steering Committee first met in person on July 14, 2016 at the Carlisle County Extension Office in Bardwell, KY. From that point forward, the Steering Committee has reconvened monthly – by conference call where convenient and in person when necessary. Details on the membership and work of the Steering Committee are included in the “Phase One Action” section below.
WAVE has also formally enlisted partners from outside of the four counties that include top officials from state and federal government, key stakeholders in the rest of the Purchase counties, and regional and national representatives of private industries and industry groups that could potentially help bring jobs and commerce to the River Counties. The membership and objectives of the WAVE Advisory Committee is detailed in the “Phase One Action” section below.
Finally, six Implementation Committees were established to focus targeted attention on six of the most significant issues identified in this strategic planning process: Port Authority Development, Agricultural Technology, Regional Asset & Infrastructure Development, Tourism, Education and Workforce Training, and Small Business and Entrepreneurship. Each of these committees have held several monthly meetings, and a description of their membership, responsibilities and agendas are described in the “Phase One Action” section below.
Among the key responsibilities of this ongoing committee work was the development and planning of an Annual WAVE Confluence, the first of which was held at Columbus-Belmont State Park on October 24-25, 2016. The Annual WAVE Confluence is a two-day affair, with featured speakers, implementation committee meetings and work sessions, supplemented with touring, local activities and social functions that will celebrate local assets and community leaders. Political and civic leaders from across the region, from Frankfort, and from the nation’s capital were invited to address the Confluence, and more importantly, to join in work sessions and be re-introduced to the extraordinary people, ecology and culture of the River County region.
Upon the conclusion of the first WAVE Confluence, Phase Two of the Strategic Plan will now be launched. Phase Two will continue to involve monthly meetings of each Implementation Committee identified in this Phase One plan. These committees would work to implement critical action items designated in the plan and work toward the development of the second Confluence in the fall of 2017. It is contemplated that this Confluence will be an annual affair – an opportunity for the region to assess its success and failures, revisit its priorities and bring key policymakers from Frankfort and Washington to celebrate the River County Region and join in fellowship.
During Phase Two, it is also anticipated that an Executive Director will be hired – likely from the Purchase region – to manage the project going forward, with CivicPoint taking a secondary, consulting role. The Executive Director would be chosen and hired by the Project’s Steering Committee.
A critical element of Phase Two, moreover, is that no local public funds will be employed – the four county governments who funded Phase One of the Project have completed their financial obligation. CivicPoint has led efforts, in conjunction with the Project’s Steering Committee, to identify and solicit private supporters, and federal grant funding to pay for the hiring of an Executive Director and all other consulting fees and expenses required going forward.