In the 2-1/2 years since a fire destroyed the plant that was home to its largest private employer, Jackson County still hasn’t recovered from the eventual job losses that ensued.
Mid-South Electronics never recovered from the blaze at the 700-worker plant, where employees assembled circuit boards and did plastic injection molding used in ice and water dispensers for refrigerators. Most of the work eventually went away, leaving a trained workforce with few available jobs. As a result, unemployment soared in the eastern Kentucky county of about 14,000 situated in the Appalachian foothills.
With no interstate or rail line running through it, Jackson County is like a lot of other rural Kentucky counties – it needs help from the state in finding and enticing industry to bring highly coveted jobs offering good salaries and benefits, county officials said.
“We just need an opportunity to get businesses to come look at us,” said Mitchell Ball, administrator for the Jackson County Industrial Development Authority.
Kentucky’s two candidates for governor in the upcoming Nov. 6 election – Republican incumbent Ernie Fletcher and Democratic challenger Steve Beshear – outlined their plans for increasing jobs, especially in impoverished areas, in responding to an AP questionnaire.
On the campaign trail, the rivals offer starkly different reviews of Kentucky’s economic performance during Fletcher’s tenure as the state’s first GOP governor in a generation. Fletcher says the state has made solid progress, while Beshear says it continues to lag behind most of the nation in several broad measures.
Beshear said that Fletcher “has failed to provide the leadership needed on economic development.” Fletcher countered that improving economic opportunity has been “my guiding principle.”
Kentucky’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 5.7 percent in July, compared to 5.9 percent in December 2003 when Fletcher took office. Kentucky’s jobless figure continues to surpass the national rate and the gap has widened. The national rate was 4.6 percent in July, down from 5.7 percent in December 2003.
Kentucky added 61,200 jobs between December 2003 and July 2007, according to a seasonally adjusted, non-farm employment survey by the U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. A broader measure of employment shows the state added 76,394 jobs during the period.
Both candidates see education as a stimulus for job creation. Fletcher pointed to increased state spending on education – from the earliest grades to college – to back up his claim of making education a priority.
“Unlike many politicians that make this claim, we’ve put our money where our mouth is,” he said.
Beshear said he wants to modernize workforce development and training, make college more accessible and turn schools into “first-class institutions of learning.” Beshear has proposed expanding preschool programs and redesigning high schools to better prepare students for college and the workforce.
Beshear said the state should target incentives toward “the kinds of businesses we need – those with high growth potential in high-wage jobs.” Beshear says the state’s economic development efforts should have more of an inward focus, encouraging business startups and expansions in Kentucky. He also says he would seek ways to boost available capital for fledgling companies and would increase the state’s venture capital tax credit.
Fletcher touted an energy bill he recently signed that would provide hundreds of millions in financial incentives to companies that build plants in Kentucky to convert coal to cleaner-burning alternative fuels.
“If we want to advance together as a commonwealth, this is the sort of economic development that will achieve that goal,” Fletcher said.
Beshear also advocates tapping Kentucky coal and crops to become a leader in developing alternative fuels.
During his term, Fletcher won passage of a tax overhaul that took about 500,000 of Kentucky’s poorest residents off the state income tax rolls, cut personal income taxes for most other Kentuckians and lowered corporate income taxes. The governor also boasts of expanding a tax increment financing program to stimulate development, and says high-tech startups have grown and high-speed Internet access has spread.
Beshear has countered that Kentucky lags near the bottom nationally in workforce education and the number of adults with college degrees and blames Fletcher for not improving the situation.
Both candidates also mentioned efforts to improve Kentuckians’ health as another way to boost the state’s competitiveness. Fletcher noted his initia- tives to revamp Medicaid, the federal-state health plan for the poor and disabled, and to assist small businesses in obtaining health coverage for their workers. Both candidates have offered proposals to provide health coverage for uninsured children.
In Jackson County, Judge- Executive William O. Smith acknowledges that the devastating fire at the Mid-South Electronics plant knocked his county on its heels with the eventual loss of hundreds of jobs.
A month before the blaze, the county had a 5.6 percent unemployment rate in December 2004. Its jobless rate was 12.9 percent, the state’s highest, in July 2007.
“It’s just going to take us some time to get back up to speed,” Smith said.
Smith realizes his county is unlikely to attract a huge industrial plant, like an auto facility, but would be ideal for spin-off plants serving a big industry located in the state’s more populated areas. He said rural areas like his need the state’s attention to improve their economies and reach their potential.
“Even though we’re small, we’re a lot in number, and we need the governor’s help,” he said.