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Op-ed: Digital Connectivity Fuels Kentucky’s Economic Engine

Recently, I participated in a virtual forum with Kentucky business and technology leaders to discuss the importance of digital connectivity for small businesses and communities amid COVID-19 and beyond. The online event — “How Technology is Fueling Kentucky’s Recovery & Growing the Economy” — was hosted by Jake Ward, president of the Connected Commerce Council, a non-profit membership organization representing digitally empowered small businesses nationwide.

During the discussion, I highlighted how Kentucky’s technology sector is growing like never before and contributing to the Bluegrass State’s overall economic progress. I also noted that, given the significant challenges of the pandemic, our resilient small businesses are relying on the “digital safety net” now more than ever. Kentucky is open for business, and technology is ensuring we stay that way.

I was joined on the webcast by innovative business leaders from across the Commonwealth — Jenna Ahern of Guardian Owl Digital in Louisville, Payton May of Bit Source in Pikeville and Joshua Ravenscraft of New Frontier Outfitters in Morehead. It was inspiring to hear their stories of not only surviving, but also thriving, amid COVID-19 — thanks to the General Assembly’s long-term focus on business-friendly policies, access to affordable online tools and platforms, and an indomitable entrepreneurial spirit.

Joshua Ravenscraft shared how he and his brother, Jared, founded Appalachia’s first outdoor clothing brand in their parents’ kitchen in Morehead in 2006. Just five years later, they have grown New Frontier Outfitters to include more than two dozen wholesale locations across Kentucky, Colorado and North Carolina, along with an extensive international online customer base from Canada to the Netherlands.

“We’re from a really small town here in Morehead, so connectivity is really important to us,” he noted. “We’ve got to have it to stay alive.”

And their experience has been borne out nationwide. A Connected Commerce Council report earlier this year found that, compared to “digitally uncertain” businesses, “digitally advanced” businesses have fared 20 times better in acquiring new customers and 50% better in overall revenue amid COVID-19. Tragically, this study also found that more than 1.5 million “digitally uncertain” U.S. businesses likely closed during the pandemic.

Kentucky business policy experts Josh Crawford with the Pegasus Institute, Colby Hall with Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) and Shelby Williams Somervell with Greater Louisville Inc. also participated in our recent webcast, sharing their insights on preserving small businesses’ access to affordable online tools and platforms.

“The vertically integrated digital economy allows for lower bottom-line costs and higher convenience for the end consumers,” Somervell pointed out. “If this is changed, I think you are going to see cost and convenience for many goods and services that consumers now take for granted dramatically shift for the worse.”

I share these concerns. The unintended consequences of burdensome federal legislation targeted at limiting tech will do much more harm than good and will trickle down costs to businesses and communities. As a general principle, government does best when it interferes the least. Government sometimes just needs to get out of the way instead of over-regulating these tech companies.

Believe me – if they start regulating the big, successful tech companies, then they’ll start thinking about regulating the medium- and the small-sized. We cannot let the camel’s nose get under the tent on this. We need to remove artificial barriers to free enterprise, not add more.

Hearing success stories of how technology tools empower Kentucky businesses — in urban and rural communities alike — served to re-emphasize how important digital connectivity is to supporting the Commonwealth’s economy. Our economy is more innovative and connected than ever, and we must not create new barriers that could stifle our progress.

In Kentucky, digital connectivity fuels our economic engine and will continue to do so in the future. As the General Assembly accelerates expansion of high-speed broadband access statewide, we must continue to foster an environment that allows small businesses to utilize affordable digital tools, not target the very companies that have brought innovation, success and resiliency to our state’s economy and communities.

-Kentucky Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer