f you’ve followed the business news in Kentucky over the last four years, you know that Gov. Andy Beshear likes to win — whether it’s the race to land Ford’s Blue Oval SK Battery plant, a multibillion-dollar investment from Amazon or a plum ranking in the Site Selection Governor’s Cup.
Gov. Beshear took time to detail his approach to leadership in a candid video interview with Site Selection. Here is that exchange from March 27:
Kentucky is coming off a record two-year run of economic development success. What were the most important factors that directly contributed to that record run?
Gov. Beshear: We are coming off our best two years in economic development in our history, and it’s not even close. When we went into 2021, we were averaging about $5 billion in new private-sector investment a year. In 2021, we brought in $11.2 billion and in 2022, about $10.5 billion. In 2021, we had a record 18,000 new jobs and in 2022 about 16,500 new jobs. Along the way, we became the electric vehicle battery production capital of the United States of America.
As it sits right now, Kentucky is home to the biggest investments ever in the history of Ford and Amazon. Now, when I think of the factors that have helped us achieve this success, there are four, but there is also an overall framework. The first factor is speed to market. We are able to tell companies that we will get you up and running faster than any other state. Our Blue Oval SK Battery Park is on schedule despite it being the largest battery plant that we’re building in the history of the world with the twin that we’re building right next to it. When you look at different states, they’ll talk about their incentives, but in many of these industries, this is a race and getting up five, six or seven months earlier creates a competitive advantage. This can sometimes dwarf any incentives that are offered.
Photo of the $55 million Adena Springs Thoroughbred farm courtesy of Icon Global, which is overseeing the marketing of the property this spring.
The second factor is that we are in in an ideal location. If you are making things or you are providing services, you can reach 60% of the country’s population in a one-day drive from Kentucky; and we have been investing in the infrastructure to ensure that continues, including securing the largest infrastructure grant in U.S. history to build the Brent Spence Bridge. That is where 3% to 5% of our country’s GDP crosses every year. We are also investing into four-laning the Mountain Parkway and working on the I-69 Corridor.
Third, we have a highly skilled workforce. We are good, hard-working people. When we give people our word, it is our bond, and when they come to our community, we commit.
Fourth is a direct relationship that companies can have both with the Commonwealth and with me as the governor. On our biggest projects, I have a direct line to the CEO or other high-ranking official at these companies. When something is happening that might get us behind schedule, I pick up the phone and have a direct conversation. It’s also a long-term relationship. Look at North American Stainless. They announced their 13th expansion in Kentucky. Look at Toyota, which in 2021 announced another major expansion in what was the very first facility Toyota put in the United States. All this falls under our team approach. We call ourselves Team Kentucky and we live it.
And when you look at the way we approach economic development, our environmental parameters are at the table in the beginning. Having direct conversations with these companies because they want it to work and also comply with the laws, our building code inspectors are right there. They’re all a part of a team that reviews plans as they come in, and if there’s a way that we can speed things up, they are empowered to make those observations and suggestions. It creates a way where companies can meet their sustainability goals and their timetable. We don’t have any silos when it comes to economic development.
What were some of the most impactful changes you made as governor to help bring about these record results?
Gov. Beshear: The first is being willing to have a very personal relationship. Now as governor, you’re called to do a lot of things and you have to decide how you’re going to spend your time. For me, creating the economy of the future is the best legacy that this administration could possibly leave. We were ranked No. 2 per capita in economic development last year by Site Selection magazine [in the Governor’s Cup standings]. For Kentucky, that is a special foundation that is going to pay off for generations to come.
We also invest in our Economic Development Cabinet. Our new secretary, Jeff Noel, came to us from Whirlpool with amazing experience. We got our legislature to support the Kentucky Product Development Initiative, which is for first-time dollars that we provide to counties to upgrade their sites. It also provides us a pool to close major deals. Look at the Blue Oval SK Battery plant, which was a site that the state invested in for a decade. Every county across Kentucky deserves to have its own Glendale. We need to be investing in those.
KPDI is attracting companies. This is $100 million that we are putting into land acquisition, infrastructure upgrades, getting the power and the other needs, rail where it’s necessary, etc. This is a very flexible program aimed at creating the very best build-ready sites.
We have also invested half a billion dollars of ARPA funds into water and sewer and our cleaner water program that’s brought water to 40,000 Kentucky homes that never had it. It improved service to 80,000 people. It also increased capacity in areas that will allow us to locate new businesses. They might not have been able to locate there before we made that investment. We are also making the biggest public investment in the history of broadband in Kentucky. And then when you look at the other infrastructure grants, companies know that we are invested for the long haul.
"For me, creating the economy of the future is the best legacy that this administration could possibly leave.”
— Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear
Do you anticipate any major changes to the state’s tax code over the next two years?
Gov. Beshear: We just reduced our state income tax for the second year in a row. Our economy is booming so much that even after last year’s cut, which was significant, we still brought in more revenue as a state and what it means right now is we’re in a very flexible position. The last four years, we’ve had the biggest four budget surpluses we’ve had as a state. We always look for two things: flexibility and fairness. Right? We want to be as competitive as any other state. We also want businesses that are invested in their communities, who want to work with us in partnership on workforce, but also knowing that when a company locates in a county, now they’re a special part of it and their employees are a part of that community, and their employees’ kids attend those public schools.
You make calls to CEOs and other business leaders. What is your typical pitch?
Gov. Beshear: If it’s in person, it’s important to start with bourbon. But when we have these conversations, we talk about how Kentucky is a great place to do business, but also a great place to live. It’s a great place to do business because of speed to market. The fact that we will get you up and running faster than anybody else and we can point you to projects of your size that got up on time, if not early — that is the track record that we can show.
I also talk about the personal relationship that I’m going to have with them. Typically, when these big decisions are made now, you’ve got to understand that these business leaders are putting their own jobs and their own reputations on the line. I want them to know we’re in it together. Their success is the success of our people here in Kentucky, and we want them to see how much we care and how invested we’re going to be in them. It creates a special relationship that I believe we have with our major employers.
Sometimes this means that they or a senior level official are going to move to Kentucky, and I’ll talk about what it’s like to raise a family here. Listen, nobody can brag on a state like its governor. I’ve got two middle school kids. Brittany and I love Kentucky. We love what our neighborhoods and our towns bring and want people to see how special of a place this is to live and to raise a family.