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‘Proactive and aggressive’ economic development is essential

By BRIAN HUTZLEY

Guest columnist

As Centre College’s chief financial officer, I have now enjoyed living in Danville for two and a half years and have become actively involved in the community in numerous ways. These include serving on the boards of the Community Arts Center, the Boyle County Chamber of Commerce, and our community’s Economic Development Partnership (EDP), all important organizations focused on trying to improve the quality of living for all.

With this civic involvement, I have the advantage of being able to look in from the outside, with some tangible experience with what matters in our community.

The first thing I want to share is how important proactive and aggressive economic development efforts are. Without these, there is little chance a community can move forward, and it is actually very likely they will fall backwards.

City by city, community by community, state by state, and region by region, everyone is trying to attract and retain new jobs. This is one of the many reasons we need dedicated, professional, and experienced staff. We are living in a global economy that is quite different from our yesteryears.

Second, from the perspective of existing and long-term employers, we need to determine what are the needs for our businesses and for our employees. How can a community thrive and grow the tax base? For me, the answer is simple: It must work together with both public officials and private partners, using our limited resources strategically.

I have had the opportunity to be involved in these efforts in other communities and our area has what it takes to thrive, but we’ll succeed only with continued determination, teamwork, and focus.

I am reminded of a Kentucky Chamber of Commerce publication that states, “Simply, how can we create a culture of competitiveness that brightens the future for all Kentuckians? We cannot, unless our leaders are informed and aligned. We cannot, unless our citizens are healthier, less dependent, more skilled and better educated. We cannot, unless our businesses are globally engaged, finding the talent they need and working collaboratively with elected leaders to increase success

“… Kentucky and the United States have experienced unprecedented change and significant economic challenges over the past 15 years. Transformational forces such as globalization and urbanization, fueled by technological advancements, have reshaped the foundations of competitiveness for places and people. The Great Recession reset our view of success, and the subsequent recovery has been uneven, leaving citizens and communities with no clear path to future prosperity.”

Where do we need to focus? I’d highlight several areas. Housing, including affordable and convenient downtown housing, is an issue, and for many reasons the development of affordable downtown living (or within walking distance of downtown) should be a priority.

We absolutely must also continue to develop our workforce; this is perhaps our biggest gap. Transportation and walkability need to continue to improve. We need affordable and accessible healthcare, and top educational systems at all levels, including childcare.

From an employee’s perspective, we need to improve the overall quality of life by creating a vibrant downtown, expanding our parks and recreation venues, entertainment and events. We need to provide support to small businesses, including start-ups, and we need a site-specific property development plan.

Vibrant downtowns matter; they are symbolic of what we value and represent the public faces of cities. They are the front door of all economic development, since prospective businesses, site selectors, visitors and even prospective Centre College students and their families visit downtown and formulate a perspective.

When downtowns struggle with high vacancies, decaying properties and disinvestment, their city’s status and reputation often takes a hit.

As such, I would argue that a strong commitment to our downtown is not an afterthought; it is a key component for economic development.

“Downtowns are important because they’re the heart and soul of any community,” says Ed McMahon, a senior fellow with the Urban Land Institute. “If you don’t have a healthy downtown, you simply don’t have a healthy city or town.”

McMahon describes the “place-making dividend.” He says people stay longer, come back more often, and spend more money in a place that attracts their affection.

Many of these things have been discussed and studied, but it is time to be focused, working together to move forward. That is why Centre College annually invests financially in this community’s economic development work. We realize the college can only be as strong as our community is.

Given our continued commitment to this community, economic development is important, it affects everyone, and it matters — for employers, employees, young professionals to our skilled tradespeople, new employers and for those that have been here 200 years, like Centre College.

Brian Hutzley is the chief financial officer for Centre College and a member of the Danville-Boyle County Economic Development Partnership Board of Directors, also known as Develop Danville.