Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Owensboro on Forbes' list; position may improve with projected new jobs

By Keith Lawrence, Messenger-Inquirer
Published: Sunday, October 3, 2010 12:10 AM CDT

Owensboro is the nation's 89th best small city for business and careers, Forbes magazine said this year in its 12th annual survey.
The Greater Owensboro Economic Development Corp. expects the rating to get better as more jobs come online over the next five years.

The rankings included 184 communities with fewer than 245,000 people.

The Owensboro metro area -- Daviess, Hancock and McLean counties -- scored its worst numbers on projected job growth (No. 142), income growth (No. 143) and projected economic growth (161).

But those numbers are based on the past few years. They don't include announcements that have been made in recent months.

"We're going to have a lot of construction jobs over the next five years," Madison Silvert, EDC executive vice president, said recently.

Earlier this year, city officials predicted that construction of the new hospital Owensboro Medical Health System is building, the planned Hampton Inn & Suites downtown, the planned downtown events center and other projects already announced would create 10,000 construction jobs.

Some would argue that that number may be high.

But the hospital is expected to create an average of 500 to 600 construction jobs and grow to between 900 and 1,000 during peak times.

The hotel is expected to create 344 construction jobs and the rest of the downtown development, 1,376 jobs.

Then, there's the bypass extension, Southtown Boulevard and the roundabout at Kentucky 56/Kentucky 81 along with several storm-water projects.

The new Kentucky National Guard Armory and a new U.S. Bank Home Mortgage office will also create construction jobs.

U.S. Bank Home Mortgage also plans to create 500 jobs with its new office in MidAmerica Airpark. And the hospital has said it expects to add up to 800 jobs over the next five to 10 years.

Those projects should raise Owensboro's numbers in surveys like Forbes, Silvert said.

Important trifecta

Earlier this year, Money Magazine ranked Owensboro at No. 93 in its "Top 100 Best Places to Live" survey.

And in November 2009, BusinessWeek selected Owensboro as the best place in Kentucky to raise a family.

That's an important trifecta, EDC President Nick Brake said.

"People pay attention to those lists," he said.

"The top 20 (in Forbes' rankings) are nearly all college towns," he said.

That makes it hard for cities without regional universities to score big in such surveys.

The Forbes rankings put three small Kentucky metros in the top 100.

Bowling Green was ranked No. 33 and Elizabethtown, No. 83.

Both are ahead of Owensboro.

"Bowling Green gets huge points for education," Silvert said. "A lot of people who graduate from Western stay in the community. Elizabethtown gets a lot of job growth from Fort Knox."

Bowling Green was No. 70 in educational attainment; Owensboro, 124; and Elizabethtown, 144.

In projected job growth, Bowling Green was No. 41; Elizabethtown, 78; and Owensboro, 142.

Owensboro's placed No. 30 in the cost of doing business. Bowling Green and Elizabethtown tied at No. 21.

EDC uses 11 "peer cities" -- communities around the country that are roughly the same size, do not have regional universities or an interstate highway -- to gauge Owensboro's success.

"We were third among our 11 peer cities," Silvert said. " Of our peer cities, Dubuque (Iowa) was 15th, Jonesboro (Ark.) was 49th. The next closest to us was Victoria, Texas, at 146."

Education level hard to change

The toughest area for Owensboro to improve on is education, he said.

"We tend to hit a wall there," Silvert said. "But Western's two-plus-two approach (two years of community college followed by two years at Western's Owensboro campus) is a good start."

But, he said, "it's a chicken-and-egg thing. It's hard to attract companies that need workers with bachelors' degrees when our percentage of college graduates is low and it's hard to keep people with college degrees here when they can't find work."

The U.S. Census Bureau said last week that in 2009, roughly 17 percent of Daviess Countians had a bachelor's degree or higher. Only 11 percent had not graduated from high school.

Another 30 percent had some college training -- including 9 percent with an associate's degree.

Getting those people to finish college would raise the community's educational attainment level significantly, Silvert said.

The census said 4,600 Daviess Countians were enrolled in college or graduate school last year.

Here's how the community ranked in other areas:

Number of colleges -- 82
Cost of doing business -- 30
Cost of living -- 18
Crime rate -- 63
Culture and leisure -- 121
Economic growth projected -- 161
Educational attainment -- 124
Income growth -- 143
Job growth -- 104
Job growth projected -- 142
Net migration -- 107
Subprime mortgages -- 63