On Tuesday, December 10, 2013, 161 people gathered at Murray State University to discuss their future. This event had been billed as Economic Summit to Define West Kentucky for the 21st Century. Bankers, university educators, lawyers, county and local elected officials, consultants, business and Chamber of Commerce officials occupied the 30 tables in the Curris Center.
Only 32 women were present (20% of conference) and of the 32, ten were under 30 and seemed to be part of the university support staff. Even before the first words of the conference were uttered, the entrenched status quo of big government and big education had control of the meeting.
This conference has had a long time in coming to life.
Back in 2002, a similar “come to economic Jesus” regional Town Hall meeting was held at Green Turtle Bay, Grand Rivers, Kentucky. Back 12 years ago, 145 elite members of the regional Chambers of Commerce, local county and city officials, consultants, university professors, and heavy industry spent a day together to explore why the Jackson Purchase area of Kentucky was going downhill so fast.
Since 1980, the eight counties of the Jackson Purchase have lost over 35,000 good paying manufacturing jobs. Add another 8,000 to 10,000 retail, support services, educational, and agricultural jobs lost. On top of this economic nightmare is been the rising cost of government, education and health delivery services, while at the same time, local government incomes from property taxes are plummeting.
During these past years, the eight counties of the Jackson Purchase have seen 4 MSU presidents; 15 state house and senate representatives sent to Frankfort; 12 county judges and over 120 city officials elected to office. Out of these numbers, only a handful are still in office with any “institutional memory” of earlier government practices.
Local government in the Jackson Purchase is either an example of a feudal state or fleeing as daisies in a wind storm. The cost of maintaining this system of state, county, city local government every 20 miles is now, in this century, proving to be one of the major issues for overcoming economic and social disaster.
This was the back drop that acting interim Murray State University President Dr. Thomas I. Miller faced when he called for a regional economic summit to be held on December 10, 2013.
In his opening letter to conference attendees, Dr. Miller stated “The focus of the Conference today will be to create a forum to discuss, plan, design, implement and then evaluate economic development initiatives for the entire region. This represents a bold step forward for Murray State University that will help further facilitate not only teaching and learning in our footprint but will also serve as a catalyst and activist in overall economic development enhancement for our region. Successful economic development for our region can only occur through collaborative work with regional alliances, community and technical colleges, local businesses and industry and governmental leaders.”
The day long event was a total failure of intent or results as described in Dr. Miller’s letter. Starting late at 11:00 am with Ron Crouch, population data was dispensed to the 30 waiting dinner tables. His message is always the same, “We do not learn from the data about the impact of our changing population figures until it is too late.”
From 12:00 to 12:45, Lt. Governor Jerry Abramson spoke about the reformed tax code that will be submitted to the 2014 General Assembly. Most legislative Frankfort insider view the reformed tax code as “dead on arrival.”
In many respects, the crowd listening to Crouch and Abramson looked a whole lot like the Spring 2013 gathering of 245 elite Republicans in the Jackson Purchase, having dinner in the same exact room, trying to figure out why they were losing so many elections.
After lunch, the summit got worse.
The rest of the meeting was spent in the Curris Center Theatre. Of all the places to have a give and take dialogue, this was not the room!
The theater could hold a capacity of very friendly 360 people. On this day there were 89 people who sat in the darkened room. Lighting in the room was designed for viewing a movie - not for recording any discussion of merit.
By 3:00, only 25 people were left to listen to a panel about Workforce Development.
The entire afternoon’s presentations were hampered by the physical decision to make it hard to hear the speakers or even to see them. Most of the speakers after Transportation Secretary Hancock gave limited information for any regional or local issues facing the Jackson Purchase.
Dr. Miller’s great call to action was met with a grand showing of status quo-ism and willingness not to embrace change for our region. Murray State University failed to deliver any reason for it to be considered “our major economic engine in West Kentucky.”
Maybe, this was in part due to the fact that the powers that be in Murray had sent word to many of the MSU staff that they were to “stand down” and do nothing till next March of 2014.
MSU will hire a new President in March of 2014. Rumors circulated in the hall that Interim President Miller will not be among the finalists. If the rumors are true, we start all over training a new person about the issues of West Kentucky. However, by then, a new Kentucky state budget will have been written and our region will be the worst for it due to the missed opportunities we are so expert at in West Kentucky.
Maybe our new regional motto should be “ignorance is bliss.”