‘The future of Kentucky is rural’: Partnership creates network for regional economic development

Published: Mar. 16, 2021 at 6:15 PM EDT
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PAINTSVILLE, Ky. (WYMT) -- A new partnership announced Tuesday between One East Kentucky and Retail Strategies aims to help eight Eastern Kentucky counties with new business opportunities.

A spokesperson for One East Kentucky (OEK) said the partnership was nearly one year in the making and is important in ensuring Eastern Kentucky’s vitality, quality of life and economic success for many years to come.

“We’re always trying to get folks to work together and break down the silos and those county lines,” said OEK President CEO Chuck Sexton.

Accoridng to a statement from OEK, the project targets eight Eastern Kentucky counties- Breathitt, Floyd, Harlan, Johnson, Lawrence, Magoffin, Perry and Pike- to recruit new retail and commercial business opportunities, using Retail Strategies’ “proprietary intelligence, real estate and data analysis” while One East Kentucky helps with the development of recruitment strategies so the counties will be successful in recruiting new opportunities that counties’ markets can support.

“As we continue to be successful in recruiting new employers to the region, new primary and secondary jobs will be created,” said Sexton. “These new jobs will positively impact the bottom lines of every existing business in our region, spurring small business development and commercial growth. We are constantly finding new opportunities to support our region’s communities and beyond and our continued recruitment success will necessitate growth in other areas like retail, restaurant, healthcare, residential, and hospitality.”

Retail Strategies was founded in 2011 with a mission to help give communities across the United States an advantage in attracting businesses, by putting to work its real estate expertise, data, and retail experience in commercial development.

“Through our work with communities we have seen retail work as a catalyst for economic development,” said Sarah Beth Thornton, vice president of business development for Retail Strategies. “We applaud One East Kentucky for incorporating retail and restaurant recruitment as a part of their traditional economic development approach. Through the education of Retail Academy, city and county leaders will be armed with the tools necessary to ‘speak retail’ and truly understand the opportunities that exist within their markets.”

The project is made possible by One East Kentucky’s Appalachian Regional Commission grant awarded in 2020, which Sexton said was only awarded due to the diligent work of his team, like Director of Regional Development Ivy Stanley.

“Each rural community has their own specific challenges, but they’re all related. And what people, I’m hoping, are beginning to realize, is that the future of Kentucky is rural,” Stanley said. “We are only as strong as we are when we stand together.”

The retail study address areas of development outside of industrial recruitment and retention, incorporating webinars, training, and other resources to bring economic development leaders to the table together.

“Everybody has kind of a similar path that they’re heading towards. They have similar goals they want to accomplish. And we want to provide all of them with those same resources,” said Sexton. “But what we wanted to do is make sure that we are providing them with the tools that they need as they continue to try to see retail grow, but also assist small businesses and entrepreneurs.”

Working with Retail Strategies, One East Kentucky will study information about the region, such as retail leakage and surplus, retail trends, market viability, customer personas, and the highest and best use of the most marketable pieces of commercial real estate in the region.

The information then is used to compare the region’s communities with similar communities experiencing success and will be packaged for marketing each community to pre-qualified opportunities that have experienced growth and success in comparable markets.

Sexton said it is about seeing what works on one front porch and incorporating those same ideas into the rest of the neighborhood- which is why the project is focusing on some of the areas with the most capital in terms of business and economic development growth over the years.

As existing entrepreneurs, small businesses and retailers are navigating COVID-19 and planning for the post-pandemic future, a digital resource tool kit will be made available for Eastern Kentucky businesses as a part of the project, with information like digital marketing trends, success strategies and social media optimization.

Additionally, a detailed webinar covering omnichannel retail techniques and discussion regarding current pain-points with a real-time virtual question and answer session with retail industry experts will be scheduled sometime later this year.

“One Harlan County is looking forward to this opportunity and a new partnership with One East Kentucky which will bolster our local economic development efforts,” said Colby Kirk, executive director of One Harlan County. “One East Kentucky’s strong vision for the region and their ability to connect local communities with firms like Retail Strategies will lead to positive outcomes in Eastern Kentucky. I am excited for the impact this project will make in Harlan County in helping our organization better recruit new jobs to the community and provide higher levels of support for our existing, locally owned businesses.”

An important aspect of the project also includes the Retail Academy -- Retail Strategies’ online-based retail recruitment education platform for the region’s community leaders.

The platform helps local communities further understand retail recruitment intricacies and put customized strategic plans and strategies to work to help ensure a bright future for the mountains of Kentucky.

One East Kentucky’s recently announced business retention and expansion program is also integral to the project’s success. Kick-off will take place in the next six months, followed by local communities’ recruitment efforts and working with One East Kentucky and Retail Strategies through the next several years.

For more information about this partnership, One East Kentucky or its nine-county region, contact Chuck Sexton at 606-886-7333 or

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