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Future still promising for local economy

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By Geoff Hamill

The economy in the United States did not get to its current state over night, and it will not be fixed over night. Still, it can be fixed. That’s the opinion of Len Spalding, a Washington County native who can be considered an economic expert. He is chairman of the investment committee of JP Morgan/Chase Global Mutual Fund Complex, and continues to serve on that group’s board of directors. In addition, he is a member of the board of the Springfield-Washington County Economic Development Authority. Spalding said the current economic state is one that began in some cases 20 years ago, and in others, much more recently.

“Are we in a serious crisis right now? Yes, definitely so. Is it fatal? No, absolutely not,” Spalding said. “We will bounce back from this, and bounce back stronger.”

It would be easy to look at today’s economy and find negatives, but Spalding said there are positives ahead for the economy on the national and local level. He and Hal Goode, executive director of SWEDA, point out that the workforce of the community and their employability go a long way toward a community bouncing back from tough times. Goode said some of the “hot jobs” in the future will be in the healthcare industry, and training for many of those jobs is being offered locally at St. Catharine College.

“There is a consumer confidence that has to come with investing in a community, whether it is with manufacturing or any type of new business. But the biggest part of the investment will be through the workforce,” Goode said. “We now have a greater abundance of individuals who will be looking for jobs. We have infrastructure in place, and we have the education facilities in place at St. Catharine College. In looking at some of the hot jobs for 2009, there is a long list under health care modernization, and there are a lot of jobs that fall under the same type of programs that St. Catharine College has.”

Spalding agreed, and said St. Catharine College is offering excellent education in diagnostic health care. He said SCC is offering sonography, radiography and other sophisticated fields. He said the training that is now being offered locally at SCC was once only offered in the state at the University of Louisville.

“We’re going to turn out maybe 2,000 or 3,000 technicians in these fields over the next decade,” Spalding said of St. Catharine College’s medical programs.

The soon-to-open technical college at the county’s industrial park will also offer educational opportunities to make workers more employable. Goode said employers looking to build in that park, as well as use local educational opportunities to train future workers, should be attracted to the community.

“If you’re looking to come into a community and relocate, you’ve got to have qualified people. Here, not only can we take this workforce and train them with St. Catharine or the technical college, but with our industrial park, we have infrastructure where you can build a facility that can employ these people. We are working to be poised to be in the right position when things begin to take this upswing,” Goode said. “We are in a recession, but I don’t think we’re likely to reach the depression stage yet. We’re just waiting, and history tells us we will start our way back up. Those communities that are prepared will be the communities that will sustain.”

Goode said if a company looking to come to Springfield to build a new facility, the local industrial park could have that company ready to start moving dirt and constructing within a few days because of the infrastructure such as water, sewer, electricity, broadband Internet and more that are already in place. Even though Springfield is a small community, it is easier to get projects off the ground because our community leadership is easy to work with.

When he’s not working locally to support the companies who have already called Washington County home, Goode is on the road looking for more businesses to come to the community. He will attend some trade shows where prospective companies will have the opportunity to learn about the things Washington County has to offer, and he said making contacts with commercial real estate brokers go a long way. After meeting representatives at the shows and other networking venues, Goode then comes back home and follows up with those contacts to keep Washington County fresh in their minds. Goode added, “E-On Electric and Salt River R.E.C.C. are great partners in this type of recruiting as they work with us to organize these events.”

Spalding said he knows things look bleak at this point, but experience tells him change will eventually come for the better. “I’ve been through about 10 of these economic downturns, and each had its own scary part,” Spalding said. “But in the end, those people who have gotten their stuff together and are prepared and committed to doing something are usually the ones who benefit by virtue of the downturns. Downturns are nothing more than a way of trimming the bush as far as a capitalistic society is concerned. Those that haven’t been very smart fall by the wayside and are replaced by those that are now prepared to run forward.”

Goode said he has spoken with local manufacturers who are already in Washington County such as Toyotomi and INOAC, but also Alltech, which has a local plant, but will also be expanding its operations in Washington County with the development of a local biorefinery. From the managers of the local plants, Goode has heard of tough times, but positive outlooks from manufacturers who are doing all they can to keep their operations on top of the economic situation.

“I made a report to the Washington County Fiscal Court, and I told them everything’s not rosy,” Goode said. “We’ve had what I call tough challenges, and I think tough challenges build character in anything in life. I talked to them about the Akebono consolidation. They are a company we had to wish well as they closed locally and SWEDA began to market their building. They are a company, like many others, facing difficult employee decisions. I’m not going to sit here and tell you we’re not going to have some more layoffs, we hope not, but the plant managers here are experienced and dedicated to their workforce, and they are going to do what they have to do for survival. We are fortunate to have such dedicated people in our community who continue to work to secure jobs in those facilities.”

The unemployment rate in Washington County is at 7.5 percent as of a November 2008 report, and Goode said that number was at 4.8 percent in November 2007. While that number is not good, it compares closely with communities around the area, including Nelson County at 7.8 percent and Spencer County at 7 percent unemployment.

Unemployment will continue to be on the radar of Goode and others in the future, and he said changes are planned for the local unemployment office that will make it a career center, helping those who are looking for jobs be better prepared to enter the workforce. He said plans are for the career center to be taking steps forward some time in February.

“I think it will be helpful for not just those looking to find work, but also for employers looking for skilled employees,” Goode said. He added that people looking for work can get help at the career center by brushing up on their resumes, or even learning how to become better prepared for jobs by taking classes and training for the needs of employers.

With the challenges that lie ahead, Goode and Spalding both feel Washington County is on the right track for bouncing back from what is currently a struggling economy and job market, but both are dedicated to having the community ready to take advantage of every opportunity when scenarios change.

“I believe we can get some confidence in people in our community, and when they are ready to invest in a community or relocate, I can tell you, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than right here in Springfield,” Goode said.