HARRODSBURG — When the economy has fallen and can’t seem to get back up, the job of industrial recruiter goes from difficult to nearly impossible.
Yet Drew Dennis, executive director of the Harrodsburg-Mercer County Industrial Development Authority, has been on something of a roll ever since he started in April 2009.
Dennis’ success in trying times seems to stem from the philosophy that it’s wise to take care of what you’ve got even as you are on the lookout for new opportunities.
"You have to look at it like this: Let's say you’re dating a beautiful woman, but you don't pay her the attention she deserves. Before you know it, she very well may be gone," Dennis said. "Having attractive industries is like having a good-looking girlfriend — you'd better pay attention and be there at a moment's notice."
But while Dennis admits this is something of a whimsical analogy, he takes this approach seriously. And it appears to be paying off.
Kentucky's Cabinet for Economic Development keeps track of all expansions of existing manufacturing industries in the state. Since 2008, here’s how area counties have fared in terms of money spent on expansions:
- Garrard County — $0
- Casey County — $50,000
- Lincoln County — $4,000,000
- Boyle County — $56,000,000
- Mercer County — $481,440,132
(Editor's note: Garrard County manufacturer Allison Abrasives announced a $2.6 million expansion of its facilities in June 2010, according to the Advocate-Messenger archives.)
Mercer County’s expansions have all come in the last year, with Corning, Hitachi and Wausau Paper all announcing major additions to their Harrodsburg operations. Those investments will result in more than 300 new jobs. In fact, the amount spent on expansions in Mercer County since the beginning of 2010 surpasses the $366,527,246 spent on new manufacturing facilities across the entire state of Kentucky during that period, according to cabinet figures.
"Expansion has never before been more important than it is in this day and age since the poor economic climate over the last four years means we're haven't been experiencing the construction of new manufacturing firms the way we used to,” said Gene Royalty, the man who organized and ran Mercer County's first industrial authority over 50 years ago and served as organization’s chairman from 1961 to 1988.
Dennis attributed a close working relationship between local office holders and organizations as the key to the industrial authority’s success.
"We've got an entire community from Mayor (Eddie) Long, Judge-Executive (Milward) Dedman, our local chamber of commerce, Harrodsburg First and the Harrodsburg Mercer County Tourist Commission working together to make life comfortable for any and all residents and potential residents thinking about calling Mercer County their home," Dennis said.
"As far as my end, I'd like to say there's some kind of magic bullet, but when it comes to assisting our local industry, my role comes down to being a good listener," he said. "And since I help run a part-time horseback riding stable with my wife and mother-in-law as business partners, I've had no choice but to develop the qualities of a good listener. And some people might be surprised to learn it's often the little things that mean the most to our local business leaders."
Charles "Casey" Duffy came to Harrodsburg's Corning plant in January of 2004 as operations manager and was promoted to plant manager five years later. And while Duffy agrees that Dennis is an astute listener, he contends there's more.
"Drew was extremely helpful during the time of our planning process for the Harrodsburg expansion," Duffy said in an e-mail interview. “His knowledge and contact with state and local governments was extremely valuable for us to tap into when we were looking for funding assistance that might be available. Later, we called on him again when planning our celebration of the expansion for help with protocol when planning events that involved state and local government officials such as Gov. Beshear."
"The industrial authority is an organization that will always be there to assist with those situations that most manufacturing managers and organizations such as ours may have little or no experience with," Duffy said. "It's very comforting to know there's a great resource close by that I can call on any time."
Driving by the Corning plant on East Office Street, Dennis points out the car window to the massive cranes currently working on Corning’s most recent expansion, which was announced in December and is ongoing.
"You ever wonder what $186,570,000 looks like," Dennis said as he gazed up at the giant cranes with a big smile on his face. "That’s what it looks like right there. And boy is that a beautiful sight!”
Corning is hardly alone. In September, Hitachi created 45 jobs with its $48,000,000 expansion and then Wausau Paper created 76 jobs in April of this year with its $220,000,000 expansion. Gov. Steve Beshear came to all three expansion announcements.