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West Kentucky and the Vision of Richard Lewis
Richard Lewis
West Kentucky and the Vision of Richard Lewis

Dateline: The Past

Globalization hit West Kentucky like a brick through a glass window. Over 10,000 manufacturing jobs were loss in the Jackson Purchase counties from 1980 through 1992. With these massive job loss from the North American Free Trade Act and manufacturing firms increasingly “downsizing”, West Kentucky was on the road to becoming yet another national zone of economic disaster.

One man fighting to change this trend was Richard Lewis, Representative (D) from Benton, Kentucky. During the 1992 General Assembly, Rep. Lewis sponsored House Bill 738, the West Kentucky Economic Revitalization Act. This was one of the true success stories of the 1992 legislature. Effective July 1, 1992, HB 738 ushered in a new era for Western Kentucky strategic planners.

The other major story to come out of this session was the creation of the Kentucky Economic Development Partnership Board. This private sector group took over the Commerce Cabinet and all state funds for economic development. Lewis desperately sought a way for his beloved West Kentucky Corporation to have input into the Partnership Board and its regional job development planning.

At the time, Richard Lewis stated his vision for his actions, “I see a need to coordinate West Kentucky goals into the new strategic planning structures now being established in Frankfort. It seemed to me that it would be in West Kentucky’s best interests if we had a group that was involved in the planning process for the entire region which could make sure Frankfort didn’t forget about us.”

When asked about this group’s mission, Rep. Lewis replied,”Now the mission that I see is to fill the void between the Area Development Districts (ADDs) and these new state government strategic planning agencies. We want to preserve local and ADD planning, and hope that their planning efforts will be implemented in any state strategic economic development plan.”

The scope of this new strategic group included 43 counties and 5 ADDs. With the aid of bonds plus other money raising devices, the West Kentucky Corporation created a new tool to prepare West Kentucky for the future. This tool was called the West Kentucky Economic Development Fund.

Lewis spoke of his vision for this new group, “The West Kentucky Economic Development fund will be the muscle, and the West Kentucky Corporation will be the brains. The hopes of all Western Kentuckians will be the driving spirit to help establish a new chance for jobs and a better quality of living for a region that is ready to become the next major success story of Kentucky’s future.”

Richard Lewis died in 1997.

Dateline: the Present

What Richard Lewis saw as a vision held until the end of the century. From 2000 up through 2007, much of what Lewis fought for in 1992 has all but died. Governors' Patton and Fletcher administrations did little to encourage West Kentucky to be a part of any statewide strategic planning process. The West Kentucky Corporation is dead. Its leadership scattered to the shadows of economic development history.

Dateline: The Future

The problems that Richard Lewis saw in 1992 are still with us in 2007. Even though he died before realizing his dreams for West Kentucky, a new era of regional leadership is organizing to take up the high standard for developing this important region of Kentucky.

Forward In West Kentucky

Forward in West Kentucky was established in 2007 as a federal 527 organization to educate people of West Kentucky on issues and their leadership. It was the second 527 organization to be established in Kentucky. In many ways, Forward in West Kentucky will work to continue the work of Richard Lewis and fight for his vision of a truly great region for the 21st Century.

In trying to explain why he fought so hard for his beloved West Kentucky, Richard Lewis stated, “When we stop dreaming as a people, we stop achieving as a state.”

An updated 21st Century restatement of those words might look something like this: “When a region stops caring about itself and loses its dreams, the state loses its path into the future.”

Thank you Richard Lewis for the vision!

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