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Kentucky Economic Developers Reach for Stars - Literally

Think of Kentucky exports. The stuff we make (or raise) and sell. What comes to mind? Corvettes, bourbon, thoroughbreds, aerospace… wait aerospace? Believe it or not, Kentucky’s biggest export industry is aerospace products.

In 2013, Kentucky exports of aerospace products and parts exceeded $5 billion, the highest of any single industry sector in the Bluegrass. In fact, despite the presence of several automobile assembly and manufacturing plants, aerospace exports ranked ahead of even motor vehicles and motor vehicle parts. (These industries exported a combined tally of $5.1 billion worth of products last year.)

Consider this: total exports of Kentucky products slightly exceeded $23 billion. That means that aerospace products constitute more than 1/5th of our entire export economy.

Think of East Kentucky and what comes to mind? Coal, natural gas, tourism, the medical industry … space science? Not quite … yet. But if economic developers in the Morehead region have their way, someday soon, in the not too distant future, that’s exactly what you’ll think.

Not many people realize this, but Morehead State University is quietly building a first-class space science program. It consists of world-class faculty and staff, and eager students from all over Kentucky and the world. The program is anchored around a $15.6 million support facility containing classrooms, laboratories and offices. (That building is named in honor of a couple of Martin County leaders, Jim Booth and Elmer Smith.)

The challenge for economic developers is threefold: first, to take existing successes like the ones described above and understand their context; second, to map out the trend lines and the potential of Ky industry; and third, to then help connect the dots in such a way that leads to economic growth. Two strategies are key to this equation: networking and education.

On April 29th in Morehead, the Kentucky Innovation Network and the MSU Space Science Center looked at ways we might help connect these dots when we held Kentucky’s first conference focused on understanding the aerospace economy in Kentucky — particularly, to understanding the space science aspect of that economy.

To get a sense of the potential of this industry, consider our first two speakers:

First up was Brad Thomas of the Kentucky Economic Development Cabinet. Brad is one of the folks in economic development who crunches numbers like the ones described above. His research tells him, and informs policymakers like the governor of this Commonwealth, where we are seeing success. Brad is one of the guys crowing the loudest about our growing aerospace industry. He’s also a big proponent of economic clusters.

Per Wikipedia, “a business cluster is a geographic concentration of interconnected businesses, suppliers, and associated institutions in a particular field.” “[They] are considered to increase the productivity with which companies can compete, nationally and globally.” In other words, birds of a feather flock together. And work together.

Think Silicon Valley! Similarly positioned companies collaborate with one another, utilize one another’s services, and attract support businesses that shorten and simplify their supply chains. Think Toyota and its many parts suppliers dotting Kentucky’s landscape.

Thomas’ message to the group: Kentucky has a very strong interest, given our aerospace industry success, to cultivate the industry into an economic cluster. The benefits for Kentucky to encouraging this sort of collaboration and growth are increased earnings and ultimately more jobs.

The next speaker was MSU Professor Bob Twiggs. With a presentation entitled “The Next Big Thing is Small,” Twiggs laid out the potential for microsatellite development in the world- and in Morehead. Professor Twiggs isn’t just another faculty member talking about things he’s learned from books. Not many people can talk about changing an entire industry, but Twiggs can. He is the inventor of the microsatellite that’s revolutionizing space: the “Cube Sat.”

Professor Twiggs talked about the fact that Morehead students aren’t just learning abstract lessons of outer space in Smith-Booth Hall. MSU actually has students designing satellites. For space. Then, they help launch the satellites by monitoring them from Morehead. Finally, they help track their orbit. Again, all from their base in Rowan County, Kentucky!!

The space workers of the 21st century are being made in Morehead. That means that our state’s challenge as workforce developers is being met … in spades! Now, our challenge should be to capture more of these students and keep them in Morehead and other places in Kentucky. One aspect of this effort should be to grow and strengthen the ties between our colleges and industry. Another vital ingredient is entrepreneurship. It alone will allow companies to grow up in Eastern Kentucky that have expertise in this critical industry.

The pieces to grow an aerospace cluster are already in place here in the Bluegrass. Now, it’s incumbent on the economic development community to help connect the dots in such a way that benefits our region’s economy.

This article first appeared at KY Forward

Johnathan Gay is an attorney and the director of the Kentucky Innovation Network office at Morehead State University. To learn more about the Kentucky Innovation Network or to get involved in entrepreneurial projects, click here.