It's undeniable: Northern Kentucky is gaining momentum. But there is plenty of room for improvement.
In recent weeks, a series of significant business expansions, relocations and investment deals were announced or officially launched. CSN Stores (now Wayfair) opens a new distribution center in Hebron this fall, representing an investment of $7.7 million and creating 105 new jobs. HealthWarehouse.com moved its corporate headquarters to Florence, creating 224 high-tech jobs at their state-of-the-art pharmacy. And early this month, Governor Beshear joined company officials at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for one of the largest development projects in the state this year: the expansion of ZF Steering, representing a capital investment of nearly $100 million and the creation of 374 new jobs.
What is Northern Kentucky doing right to attract these commitments? And how can it ensure that those commitments flourish? What do Northern Kentucky businesses need to succeed?
We spoke with a number of area business leaders to take a pulse on Northern Kentucky's prospects, its opportunities, and the challenges ahead.
Their overall opinion? Thanks to the hard work of dedicated development agencies and a supportive business community, Northern Kentucky is on the right track.
But grab a shovel and dig in: It's time to get to work.
Attracting and retaining talent
Mark Morgan is president of health care consulting firm Sherrill Morgan -- a Northern Kentucky-based business for 43 years. This year, Mark begins a new venture: Meaningful Use Technologies, Inc. (MUST). MUST will leverage Sherrill Morgan's depth of experience and customer relationships in the health care sector to provide electronic medical records and other enterprise technology to physicians and hospitals.
As a partner in this pursuit, Korea-based medical IT firm Arcron Systems will open its U.S. headquarters in Newport.
Northern Kentucky's colleges and universities were a major component of Arcron's decision to locate in the region, Mark says.
''We need young IT minds,'' he says. ''Arcron was swayed by the presence of Northern Kentucky University and the College of Informatics, and by their cooperation in developing a partnership. NKU, Thomas More, Gateway Technical College -- these were all indicators of where we should be.''
These institutions have all excelled at proactively advancing the way Northern Kentucky educates its workforce. But the demand for skilled labor continues to grow as industry takes root in the region and existing organizations expand. Can businesses compete to attract professionals to available jobs?
Jason Looman is president of Steinert U.S., which relocated to Northern Kentucky in 2009. He says that while area universities are a key asset, there is room for improvement in the way Northern Kentucky markets itself.
"Like the rest of the U.S., we are in need of experienced engineers," says Jason Looman.
''In order to get people to entertain moving to the area, we have to sell the area.''
Sometimes, he says, potential employees come to him with misconceptions about Northern Kentucky that can make closing the deal a challenge. But Northern Kentucky's high standard of living -- which comes at a relatively low cost -- has been a clincher for plenty of firms.
Looman himself sees Northern Kentucky as an attractive, entertaining and safe place to make a living and raise a family.
''The area has everything a larger city has -- great universities, great entertainment, a good employee base -- without the added costs and congestion of a larger city,'' he says.
Mark Morgan agrees, and thinks that if young professionals could ''experience the lifestyle,'' they'd be sold.
''The community is really warm,'' he says. ''The business community is strong. The economic base is diverse. It's easy to get around, and the proximity of great entertainment to where you live is attractive. … The standard of living is so high compared to the cost.''
Community cohesion and government support
Regional cooperation. Regional collaboration. Regional growth. You hear a lot of buzzwords about the importance of working in partnership with Cincinnati to make the entire metropolitan area a better place to live and work.
But the Northern Kentucky community is complex and diverse, and so is the economy that supports it. That's a unique asset of Northern Kentucky, so cooperation in many directions is vital: across the river, to be sure, but also between counties, within the business community, and across city, county and state governments.
''We need to think with one mind across counties,'' says Mark Morgan. ''Cooperation between government agencies, and between local and state governments, is very good. We're doing all the right things -- we just need to keep doing what we're doing, and then some.''
Paul Verst is president and CEO of Verst Logistics. This year, Verst expanded operations in Northern Kentucky to double the size of their 200,000 square-foot facility and add 25 employees to their workforce.
Verst credits Northern Kentucky's business-friendly climate for making the growth of his business possible. That growth has come from a strong spirit of interagency cooperation, especially an incentive package created by the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority, with support from Northern Kentucky Tri-ED, Boone County, the Chamber of Commerce, and Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.
''Northern Kentucky has provided our company with a strong pro-business environment and favorable tax rates (that) allowed us to expand,'' Verst says.
ZF Steering also received an incentive package to expand, but their decision to grow their company in Northern Kentucky was about more than the bottom line.
''The climate was very positive and pro-active, and we had a lot of support from Northern Kentucky Tri-ED especially, as well as the city, county and state,'' says Mike Hirsch, Vice President of ZF Steering.
Northern Kentucky's prime geographic location and transportation infrastructure promotes physical connections as well. Jason Looman and Mark Morgan both cite the area's proximity to other Midwest manufacturing centers as a boon, and unanimously, business leaders rely on the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport as a community asset.
''From a logistics standpoint, we are central to our customer base,'' Hirsch says. ''With I-75 going right by our door and the airport next door, we have a perfect set-up to tie into the plants we are shipping to.''
Looman adds that more international connections at CVG would make it easier for Steinert -- which is German-owned -- to do business.
''Northern Kentucky has a lot of other German-owned businesses. This community, through the European-American Chamber of Commerce, has provided us with a great network of like minded CEOs. (It's) been very beneficial to us and our start in Northern Kentucky,'' Looman says.
''(But) we need a direct flight to Frankfurt again. It can be a struggle to get to Europe.''
More international flights could attract more international business, he says, as well as aid larger multi-national companies like Procter & Gamble.
Room for growth
Steinert manufactures sorting and separating technology for the recycling, scrap metal and mining industries -- industries poised for high growth. In the next four years, Steinert will double its size, and may add a full repair shop and assembly as early as next year.
''Over time, we see investment in the U.S. increasing,'' Looman says.
Mark Morgan hopes that his entrepreneurship could encourage Northern Kentucky to intensify its focus on the health care sector as an arena for growth.
''If we can, as a region, be a leader in developing the direction that health care needs to go,'' Morgan says. ''we will be well-placed to grow.''
Mike Hirsch believes ZF Steering -- which outgrew its Florence facility in less than a year and is now doubling in size -- will take steps in the near future to get more involved in the Northern Kentucky community as they begin to manage their growth. And Paul Verst sees his company's expansion in Northern Kentucky as a vote of confidence in the region's strength and its future potential.
''Northern Kentucky is blessed to have a world-class airport, available land for development, an educated work force, excellent post secondary educational institutions, favorable tax structures, and a government that fosters cooperation and collaboration between counties and cities,'' Verst says.
These assets have kept Northern Kentucky strong during a nationwide economic slump. And although there are challenges ahead, things are looking up in the long view.
''Compared to other parts of the country, our economy has been stable -- not growing as much as we would like it to, but it has not taken a downturn as much as other parts of the country,'' Morgan says.
''We have a much greater opportunity for things to be good.''
Northern Kentucky is open for business.
Arcron Systems meets the Governor.
Paul Verst of Verst Group Logistics.