With little fanfare, Gov. Matt Bevin flew into Graves County on Thursday to talk to the owners of businesses who recently announced local development or expansions.
His first stop was at the Mayfield/Graves County Airport, where a small crowd greeted him at West Tennessee Aviation. The jet engine repair business recently relocated to the airport from northwest Tennessee.
"I really just wanted to hear what your needs are and what your concerns and thoughts are," Bevin told owner Gordon Wade and the others in the crowd as Bevin's youngest son, Danny, checked out and even climbed aboard some of the planes in the repair hangar.
Airport board member Rupert Holmes asked about a request the airport has filed with the state to take down a shed that stores lawn mowers and other equipment and expand its ramp.
"That would be a big help for us because it would change the ramp layout and allow for more plane parking and give us space for at least two more hangars," Holmes said. Bevin said he would look into the matter further.
Graves County Economic Development President Ryan Drane said it is important to provide hangar space for all those wanting to bring business to Graves County.
"We've got a list of people who want to be here, who want to have their jets here, especially now that they can have aircraft maintenance here," he said.
Airport manager Brent Robertson agreed, pointing out to the governor a five-bay hanger under construction.
"It's not even done, and it's already rented out, all five bays," he said.
Bevin asked about developable land at the airport, and Holmes noted that Federal Aviation Administration regulations currently prevent the airport from developing property on both sides of its runway, where most of its land is. Bevin said that is a similar issue at other airports and noted that is important to invest in infrastructure, including the state's smaller airfields.
"I recognize the importance of these as tickets for any community to rise," he said.
He added, "We're doing everything in transportation based on where we can get the most return on investment."
Bevin, whose grandfather was a commercial pilot in Connecticut, said he thinks Kentucky can become a hub for aircraft maintenance technology, because although it doesn't have the large flat lands of Kansas, the country's population center has shifted, and Kentucky is well positioned near the center of the country. It also has other advantages, including low-cost power and land and four distinct seasons. The state is well positioned to help private investors, Bevin said, including with permitting issues and land availability.
Bevin also stopped by the Mayfield/Graves County Chamber of Commerce to meet with other business owners. Several of them were involved last month in the announcement of 11 major economic development projects coming to Graves County, representing $115 million in new investments and more than 160 new, full-time jobs.
"I think it's an event we'll look back on in 10 years and say that was the day," Drane said. "That was the tipping point for our community."
Bevin invited the business owners to share with him their challenges and concerns so he can take those back to Frankfort and work on solutions.
"One of our biggest problems is labor, and labor is everything," said Mary Propes of Mayfield Consumer Products, talking about the difficulty of finding enough qualified skilled workers.
Not having an immediately available workforce has kept the candle company from expanding with some new clients, she said.
Bevin acknowledged the problem, and said part of what the state needs to continue to focus on is increasing workforce participation.
"What I mean is there are many young, able-bodied people with no young dependents who are able to go to work," he said. "They just don't go to work, and people who work are paying for it."
Among the programs he discussed was one he has proposed that requires some people to work at least 20 hours a week to receive Medicaid health benefits.
"We have this mindset in America that if you can get it from someone else, it's better than earning it yourself," Bevin said, adding that way of thinking must end.
It is important to encourage people at younger ages to go into jobs for which a local demand exists, he said. He talked about programs that do so, using partnerships between high schools, manufacturers and technical learning centers.
"The key is to engage them earlier, to not stigmatize the idea of not going to college," he said.
Bevin also talked about programs that allow lower level felons to complete rehabilitation and eliminate barriers for them re-entering the workforce.
Realtor Tom Waldrop stressed the importance of upgrading bridges and the highway that connects Henderson with Evansville, Indiana. Without that connection, "Truckers are avoiding our interstate," he said of the newly designated Interstate 69 that passes through Graves County.
Waldrop added, "We want I-69 to do for our region what I-24 did for Cadiz."
Bevin said he is aware of the importance of the project to western Kentucky and that engineering and environmental studies are nearly complete, putting the bridge replacement projects two to three years ahead of schedule. He also talked about the Bridging Kentucky infrastructure program the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet has put in place to eliminate $6 billion in unfunded liability on bridge maintenance and repairs, focusing on safety and providing economic advantage.
Representatives from Ingram Water & Air and its new Mr. Cool brand asked about the effects of tariffs on trade with China and other countries, especially as it concerns assembling products whose components are made in China.
"These tariffs won't be here forever," Bevin said. "They won't."
He then talked about the imbalance in trade and how although it is important to balance the $500 billion trade gap for long-term economic health, especially since the United States and China combined make up 40% of the world's gross domestic product (GDP). As a result, he said, Kentucky businesses should be looking to work more with China. In fact, he said, the Bank of China is looking for opportunities to help scale up Kentucky businesses to help narrow the trade gap. Bevin said, "This is the exact time to be doing this."