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Industrial Foundation caught in balancing act between past, future

EDITORIAL

The Advocate-Messenger

Tuesday’s berating of Boyle County Industrial Foundation Chair John Albright by several county magistrates shows just how upset some are over the theoretical loss of a major industrial project from the distilling company Diageo. It also reveals the rock and a hard place that the Industrial Foundation has wedged itself between.

The Industrial Foundation is and always has been a private organization. It is not funded by taxpayers; it does not take any public funding. It owned — and still owns some of — a substantial chunk of valuable land along the bypass.

In this way, the Industrial Foundation is no different than any other private property owner holding developable land. But at the same time, it clearly is not just any other private property owner.

It would have been bizarre to see Jane Doe property owner called on the carpet by the fiscal court over private decisions made about her private property. It was much less bizarre for it to happen to Albright, because the Industrial Foundation has not sat on the sidelines, focused only on its own wellbeing like a regular landowner might.

The Industrial Foundation formed in 1961, decades before economic development would become the global dogfight it is today. Its stated goal is the improvement of Boyle County through the attraction and development of industry — and as Albright noted Tuesday, now also through the attraction and development of commercial business.

The foundation has a board of directors made of up well-known, respected and influential community members. It acts with an outside purpose, not self-enrichment.

Even if the Industrial Foundation has never benefited directly from tax dollars, over the years it has exerted influence on local governments to support the industrial park and improve infrastructure to it; and to fund the Economic Development Partnership, a public-private venture that uses public funds in an effort to bring business to Boyle County.

All of those facts make the Industrial Foundation very different from your average landowner and give it an enhanced responsibility and accountability to its community. That’s why magistrates were banging their fists and speculating on the inadequacies of the Industrial Foundation board’s decision-making process Tuesday. And it’s why Albright took the beating respectfully and without returning fire.

Rock, meet hard place: It’s precisely because the Industrial Foundation has taken its responsibilities beyond its own private interests seriously that it is open to criticism over the Diageo decision at all.

If the Industrial Foundation wanted to, it could have walled itself off and operated solely as a private entity, doing what it pleased with its land without any accountability. A dozen Diageos could have been turned away and no one would be the wiser.

Instead, the Industrial Foundation recognized it couldn’t accomplish its goals alone. It participated in the formation of the EDP and agreed to share its president and CEO with the EDP, making more of the foundation’s activities visible to the public. And it championed the reorganization of the EDP two years ago, which further reduced its own influence, putting it on a path toward relative obscurity.

Its influence is clearly not gone yet, as the Diageo situation proves. And it’s worth noting the Industrial Foundation didn’t choose to reveal publicly that it turned Diageo away. But it did inform members of the EDP about what happened behind closed doors in October, supposedly so that the decision could be analyzed and discussed. The Industrial Foundation’s decisions are more visible than ever and its power is waning — both results of its own actions.

Some public officials think the Industrial Foundation is a dinosaur, an outdated method of economic development that hinders progress. There are probably some who want to see it gone. There may well be some members of the Industrial Foundation who agree, given the organization’s willingness to participate in shrinking its own role in the community.

Regardless, Industrial Foundation members have been the ones to most clearly state a vision for where Boyle County’s economic development efforts must head in the future: publicly purchased and developed land that can be used to lure the next generation of businesses.

Is it ironic then, that the Industrial Foundation is receiving such a large helping of criticism for being stuck in the past? Perhaps. But a better way to think about it might be that Boyle County is working through an awkward, teenage phase.

The Industrial Foundation is how Boyle County got many of its current employers and jobs; the EDP or some government-run economic development effort will be how it gets many of its employers and jobs in the future. In between those paradigms is a transitional state, a chrysalis, inside of which leaders must figure out how to transform the old into the new without breaking everything in the process.