Owen Co. High Civics Club holds forum on county's economic future as part of project-based learning exercise; student-run event draws local, state, federal government representatives

News-Herald, Owenton, May 31, 2017

Economic forum offers ideas, raises questions

By Mike Haines

The Monday before graduation, the OCHS Civics Club hosted a forum to discuss the future of Owen County’s economy. The forum was held in the OCHS auditorium and was attended by students and community members.

The forum was the brainchild of sophomore Audrey Lewis, assisted by classmate Madeline Shelton, as a project-based learning exercise for their World Civilizations class, taught by Jennie Urie, and Civics Club sponsor, Kevin Webster.

The students developed the idea after reading and listening to the discussions about the impending loss of Itron in the News-Herald and in community conversations. Both students said in a later interview that they and the other students were concerned about a lack of formal community-wide discussions about the impacts of the closing and plans for the future.

“Our forum was designed to get the ball rolling and get ideas for the future out in the public,” Lewis said. “There is a real need for additional meetings like this to give people a chance to discuss what’s coming,” Shelton added. “If the local governments don’t do it, then the community must. It’s very important that everyone’s ideas be aired and thought about.”

The forum took six weeks to put together, according to Lewis, to get the ideas and presentations ready and guests lined up.

The forum consisted of two segments: Ideas developed and researched by the students; and, a question and answer session for local, state and federal government representatives who took the stage with the students.

The students had five proposals for consideration. Each project was detailed and supported with data and information developed by the students.

One group of students advocated for the construction of an aquatic park and associated restaurant. According to the students, who looked at the operations of a similar facility in Georgetown, the park would pay for itself in five years and begin to show a profit after that.

The park and restaurant – constructed apart from the park – would improve the quality of life in the county and be a selling point for economic development efforts. It would also provide a number of jobs for young people, something lacking in the county, now.

Another student advocated for increases in residential development to bring new citizens into the county. More people would mean more customers for local businesses; more people involved in civic life; and, more taxpayers to strengthen local government and schools. The idea was to build upon the concept of Owen County being a "bedroom community," which it appears to be today.

A group of students proposed the development of a craft distillery acknowledging the success of a Gallatin County facility and the booming Bourbon Trail in other parts of the state. The students talked about the need to change laws to do this. They argued that the development and the changed laws would bring tourist income to the county and taxes from sales and licensing.

The students recognized the growing importance of agritourism in the state as another group proposed the development of a dairy-based project. The students spoke about what was once a vital part of the county’s agricultural economy and how this would fit into the county’s desire to preserve its heritage. The students pointed to similar projects in other parts of the state and their success in drawing visitors and business.

An ambitious call for the location of a community college in the county was presented by Lewis. The college would provide educational opportunities for citizens as the county lags in the number of people with more than a high school diploma. The number needs to be increased to make the county more attractive to business, she argued. The college would serve as a draw for an industry since the ability to train employees would be in the community.

A second part of the presentation by Lewis was to work with the University of Kentucky to rethink their use of Eden Shale Farm. This would allow ag-based education opportunities for locals, along with providing another source of possible jobs and a tourism draw.

The presentations were followed by some audience questions and comments on obstacles and strengths, as well as some other ideas.

The question and answer session brought representatives from the City of Owenton, Owen County government officials, Rep. Philip Pratt, R-Georgetown and representatives from Rep. Thomas Massie’s, R-KY office and those of Sens. Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell.

The questions were presented by the students and showed they had done their homework.
Most of the questions centered on what the local governments were doing to prepare for the Itron closure and what the state and federal governments could do to help.

Lewis and Shelton were disappointed with the federal responses but were understanding about the limited role they could play.

“It’s a local problem,” Shelton said. “There’s just not much they can do.”

Lewis was a bit more critical as she expected them not only to point out grants but to offer assurances that they would support the county in those processes.

Rep. Pratt offered the bluntest response to the questions in saying that “Itron is gone. You need to let go of that and plan for what’s next.” He did offer his support for local efforts but cautioned that many Kentucky communities are competing for industry and development.

City and county officials offered that they were working on recruiting industry but also noted the competitive environment of such efforts.

Owen County Judge-Executive Casey Ellis responded to a question about how the county could help fill the hole in Owenton’s income with the loss of Itron’s payroll tax contribution.

“There’s not much we can do," Ellis said. "We can continue the things we’re already doing, but there’s no way we can fill a $250,000 hole in their budget.” He also referred to legal obstacles to the county assuming city obligations.

Ellis also said he supports merging the city and county governments. He sees this as the best way for small counties and their communities to efficiently provide services. City council members did not get a chance to respond when the discussion veered away from that topic.

City council members Adam Gaines and Joan Kincaid told the group that the city didn’t know what the impact of the Itron loss would do to their services at this point. Gaines said that there wouldn’t be any noticeable impacts because the city had reserve funds it could use.

There was fairly unanimous agreement among the groups that it was unlikely an employer that would bring back 450 jobs could be located.

Ellis said that he was intrigued by the idea of using the Itron facility as an incubator for a number of smaller businesses. The concept has been used in some other communities and has proven to be successful, particularly in developing local industry.

Lewis and Shelton talked in the later interview about how pleased they were with the community input they received both at the forum and while working on the project. They were asked about their reactions to officials’ statements.

They were both perplexed at some answers they heard from the government officials. Particularly, the students had expected a better idea of what was going to be lost as a result of the Itron closure. They were doubtful of the thought that things wouldn’t change.

The group was surprised at the support for merger expressed by Ellis. They see it as a way to make things more efficient and effective for the county.

The students were disappointed with responses to their question about what could be done to keep young people in Owen County. Whether it was a misunderstanding of the question or something else, there was no real response to that from anyone on the stage.

In response to a question about what they learned from the project, they both talked about the seeming desire of locals to have economic growth and stability but have no development or growth. That seems a very tough thing to do in their minds.

When asked what they would like to see done, Shelton said that she would like to see more work devoted to agritourism. Lewis said she would like to see more work done to impress upon citizens that preservation of the community will need some kind of development.

The students were muted in their reactions to the response to their forum. According to Shelton, there was an appreciation for doing it but not much comment on the substance of it.

“It’s like they looked at it as ‘It’s just a bunch of kids,’” Shelton said. “But, if we’re going to get through this, it’s going to take everyone, and we’re going to have to grow closer as a community.”

“The best ideas won’t come from government, but it will take their support to make things work. There is not one solution, and there’s not one without flaws,” Lewis said. “but someone has to step out with ideas. That’s what drove the project."

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