A September Morning in Kentucky

I had never been to Kentucky before. I always thought my first trip would be to Churchill Downs for the Derby or to see Lincoln’s birthplace. Someday I will do both. But my recent journey to the beautiful, vibrant city of Louisville was for business—on many levels. I was making an appearance, along with Stephen Gold, MAPI’s president and CEO, and Jim Engelhardt, MAPI’s director of communications, at the closing session of the 2013 Annual Meeting of the Southern Governors’ Association (SGA).

There was one other player in our groupDr. Matthew Murray, Director of the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. While we were waiting for the session to start, the sequence of a quick and most interesting year ran through my mind. In the fall of 2012, SGA approached MAPI with a formidable taskto develop an intellectual blueprint for an advanced manufacturing development strategy for the American South. Thus began my yearlong collaboration with Dr. Murray, a noted and articulate expert in various aspects of state level economic policy. After a year of countless conceptual conversations, data discussions, drafts, and polishing, I met him for the first time five minutes before our presentation. We have many reasons to be happy with the final report.

Presenting the highlights of our work in an interview format, we spoke of the strengths of the American South—with its productivity potential and its low costs. And we spoke of the challenges—the human capital issues that must be confronted in order for a vibrant advanced manufacturing sector to become a regional reality.

I explained the cluster framework, which formed the basis of our analysis. Cluster theory has become the accepted paradigm for understanding regional economies and for thinking about regional development. Dr. Murray and I emphasized that clusters do not respect state boundaries. Thus regional benefits will come from regional collaboration to develop the workforce and to create constructive industrial-governmental-quasi-governmental linkages. There were skeptics in the audience. That’s fine. Hopefully, as our report circulates, they will come to understand the implications of our research. But I was pleased to find that most were attuned to the benefits of interstate collaboration.

And what an audience it was. We were honored to have Governor Steven L. Beshear of Kentucky and Governor Mike Beebe of Arkansas listening to our presentation. Upon completion, Dr. Murray and I joined the audience to listen to a panel discussion whose participants included the two governors as well as other public officials and industry group leaders. This part of the program was moderated by Stephen Gold. The participants engaged in a robust discussion of the issues brought forth by our report and the implications for their large and diverse region.

Afterward, I had some time to walk around Louisville and think. Like all economists, I write my share of papers. But I will always associate the SGA-MAPI project with that beautiful September morning in Kentucky.