• John McGary, Woodford Sun Editor

Soper looks back at 2019 and ahead to 2020 and beyond

There was plenty of good economic news in Woodford County in 2019 – and some of the other type as well. Throughout the year, Woodford County continued to lead state rankings for the lowest unemployment rate, and the ongoing expansion at Lakeshore Learning Materials at Midway Station will add 100 new jobs. On the other hand, Friday, Sept. 27, was the last day on the job for most of the remaining employees of longtime major employer Ledvance (formerly Osram Sylvania and Sylvania). Company spokesman Glen Gracia told the Sun that 136 worked their last day then and about 30 would remain to handle the plant’s decommissioning through winter and early spring. The company made the plant closing announcing a year ago, when about 260 people worked there. A month later, More Than A Bakery officials confirmed reports that they had just terminated about 70 workers, leaving about 170 still on the job. In a news release, company President Bill Quigg said, “Although we have been attempting to staff a seven day-a-week operation since March, we have simply been unable to find enough people to fill all of our positions. We asked our existing workforce to add shifts, but that was strictly viewed as temporary in that it is not consistent with the value we place on work-life balance for the folks at the bakery.” A week after that, John Soper, the unpaid chair of the Woodford Economic Development Authority (EDA) and paid economic development consultant for the City of Versailles, told the Versailles City Council that Quad/Graphics – the county’s largest employer – was for sale. He said the company was “getting out of the book business” after an attempt to buy a larger company was shot down by the U.S. Justice Department over antitrust concerns. As a result, the company had to pay a $45 million “exit fee,” and would be packaging its Versailles plant and two others for sale, he said. In an interview last week, Soper gave reasons for optimism for the 600-plus people who work there: the company had invested $85 million in new equipment over the past few years and he knew of no planned employment changes. He said Quad/Graphics’ plant manager told him he was very confident about the Versailles workforce and the company’s products and value of equipment. “He thinks it’s just a function that someone will buy a profitable business at some point down the road and do the same type of things,” Soper said. Early in the interview, Soper stressed a positive economic development atmosphere in the county and credited local leaders for working together. “From a 50,000 feet-down (view), I’d say it’s been cohesive between the three governments and the EDA, and I think that’s a direct tie-back to the three leaders (Judge-Executive James Kay, Versailles Mayor Brian Traugott and Midway Mayor Grayson Vandegrift),” Soper said. “But it seems like we’re on the same page and things are getting done.” Soper said payroll and property tax revenues were up substantially in 2019 and there were reasons for optimism for the future of the Ledvance property and even more growth at Lakeshore. Ledvance Soper said the Ledvance property is under contract with a company he can’t name yet that currently has 30 million square feet in its portfolio. “And it takes buildings like Ledvance and repurposes them, breaks them up into smaller units or whatever, and they’ve done some pretty neat things,” he said. Metronet’s high-speed internet service will give the new owner of that property another tool to bring in high-tech jobs, he said, adding, “Two years ago, I don’t know if that was a possibility.” Finding a suitor for a property with an 813,000 square-foot building has been one of Soper’s chief tasks in the past year. Lakeshore Learning Materials Lakeshore’s second distribution center could set the stage for the company to move manufacturing operations from California to Midway Station, Soper said. “We think (the educational materials the company makes) could obviously be manufactured cheaper here, and with them having this synergy of having two large facilities here, more opportunity to move management here. … They have land right behind them (they already own) where they could add another building …” Soper said. Soper said rezoning the 137 acres of the Freeny property adjacent to Midway Station from agricultural (A-1) to industrial (I-1) – part of which will be taken up by the second Lakeshore building – was also a positive move in 2019. Meanwhile, Metronet’s entry as a third cable television/internet provider also makes Woodford County a more attractive site for businesses large and small. “We’re on our way to being a gigabyte city (the company is laying fiber-optic cable in Versailles and is expected to expand outward) and that ties hand in hand in with what we think is going to happen with the Ledvance building …” ‘Boutique hotel’ The planned boutique hotel and micro-distillery for the Community Trust Bank building on North Main Street, while only creating a projected 15 jobs, is another sign of economic growth in downtown Versailles, Soper said. One of the investors in the project, which could cost an estimated $4.6 million according to paperwork filed for a community development block grant, said they hoped to open in 2021, but were okay if it took till 2022. Plans include space for a leased restaurant. “I’m fully confident they can pull off what they’re planning to do, and that makes downtown Versailles more of a destination location – ‘Let’s go to downtown Versailles and when we get there, we’ll figure out what we’re going to eat or where we’re going to go,’” Soper said. Challenges Soper acknowledged that Ledvance’s closing and More Than A Bakery’s layoffs will hurt local government tax revenues, saying the pinch of the former hasn’t yet been felt because Ledvance provided severance packages and other benefits. However, he said he believed More Than A Bakery had rehired some of its laid-off workers and would continue to be a major employer here. “I think they’re very healthy. I think they just got into trying to do something that seemed to be harder to do than what was originally first thought,” he said. Edgewood He called the long-delayed Edgewood development, which could open the way for Bluegrass Community Hospital to build a new hospital off Lexington Road and bring new business and residential development there, a “lost opportunity.” The proposal has been stymied for a court challenge since September 2016. “I wish we could have that property, because as good as that property is, I hate having 118 acres of industrial land on rail not available to us and I hate, even more so, not having a new hospital built when I still think there’s a company willing to build (it),” Soper said. New high school He said property tax revenues from three large employers alone – Lakeshore, American Howa Kentucky (at Midway Station) and More Than A Bakery will, when Lakeshore’s expansion is complete, contribute about $450,000 annually in property taxes. Soper, a former banker, said those funds, combined with a bond rate of 4 percent will make for nearly $10 million in bonds for a new high school. “If you did the first phase of Edgewood with some of the retail, the hospital and the residential, especially the multi-family, you’d be looking at probably $150 million worth of new property (added to the property tax rolls),” he said. As for critics who may think he never turns down any sort of employer, Soper said that wasn’t true. He said proposals for truck stops at Midway Station, for instance, were turned down, and other employers were told their plans to pay $11 an hour probably wouldn’t work here in the long-term. Technology Soper said looking to 2020 and beyond, it’s important that local government and business leaders be aware of the impact electric vehicles (AHK makes auto parts), artificial intelligence and robotics will have on manufacturing. He reiterated the importance of city and county leaders working closely together, and with the EDA, and said, even with the fluid situation at Quad/Graphics, Woodford County’s quality of life would continue to make it a good place for businesses to grow in or relocate to. “We’ve got to continue to have inventory (of land and workers). When you have inventory, you can be patient and wait for the right thing. I think we waited for the right thing in Lakeshore … More Than A Bakery … and if we have additional inventory, then we can continue to wait for the right thing and not have to get into a panic when all of a sudden you lose a Ledvance unexpectedly,” Soper said.

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