With a population of just over 64,000, Oldham County is one of the top three fastest growing counties in Kentucky and has the lowest unemployment rate in the state. Oldham has the highest per capita family income and one of the best educated workforces in Kentucky, combined with an award-winning school system and a number of rich cultural offerings, including a vibrant art scene and even an artisanal distillery.
Business in Focus spoke to David Bizianes, the Executive Director of the Oldham Chamber, to learn more about this rapidly growing and exciting community and the strategies that the Oldham Chamber is pursuing to support its growth. Bizianes observes that his county offers tremendous benefits in terms of its workforce and prime location.
“Oldham County is located just north of Louisville – Louisville is the largest city in the state of Kentucky and a metropolitan statistical area of about 1.2 million people. Oldham County developed in the 1970s as a bedroom community to Louisville and over the years as it has developed and grown, we’ve turned into the healthiest, wealthiest, and highest educated county in the entire state. And what that does for us, especially when it comes to trying to attract businesses, is it provides the State of Kentucky with one of the top assets that a community can have – a highly educated workforce,” enthuses Bizianes.
But having such a highly educated workforce located in such an optimal location poses unique challenges for the Oldham Chamber in terms of how they tailor their approach to economic development and growth.
“The challenge that we have is somewhat different from a lot of other counties in our state, in that, because of that status [of having the most educated populace] and because of our proximity to a metropolitan area, we have 80.4 percent of that population that leaves during the day and works in Louisville. So it is a real challenge for our small businesses to have bodies here during the day that eat in our restaurants and shop in our stores, and use our dentist offices and other services,” notes Bizianes.
One of the things that draws highly educated professionals to move to this area is the unique and high quality school system that the county offers its residents. Bizianes observes that this factor is key to Oldham’s identity and population growth over the years.
“A lot of people have moved to Oldham County for our award-winning school system,” he says. “We have the top school system in the state. And just last month, North Oldham High School was listed by Newsweek as being the ninth best high school in the entire country. We have a lot of executives and people who move here to access that school system, and because of that, we’ve developed this bedroom community identity.”
Bizianes suggests that his organization’s top priority is to expand the number of industries in Oldham County that will allow workers to stay in the area throughout the day, to lessen the wave of commuters leaving for Louisville every morning. A key to supporting this goal is a focus on attracting the right kinds of businesses to the county.
“When you look at industry and businesses around Oldham County, we have a lot of really incredible businesses. For example, our top employer in the county is a company called the Rawlings Group. The Rawlings Group is involved in insurance subrogation and they moved out here in 2005 with 500 employees into our county seat of La Grange. Since then, they’ve expanded to 1,300 employees and they are adding 40 new jobs every 60 days, with an average salary of about $77,000 per year. Those are very high quality jobs that bring people to Oldham County. They are on track to reach 2,000 employees by 2019. And that’s something we are very excited about.”
The Rawlings Group is the quintessential type of business that will help to increase the number of non-commuters in the county by providing high paying positions to an educated, quality workforce. Bizianes stresses the importance of such employers and the innovative and supportive role they play in the growth of the community.
“Mr. Rawlings was an innovator because he was one of the first people to move subrogation to focus not just on the auto industry but also on the healthcare industry, and because of that, his company has grown by leaps and bounds,” he explains. “That’s one of the tremendous assets of our community. It’s meant that all of those employees are shopping and eating in our community, and moving here. But also when you have a corporate citizen like that who is an integral member of our community, there are numerous examples of their generosity to the community that has helped other organizations. It’s a type of business that we point to as fitting that demographic of folks that would otherwise leave every day [to commute to Louisville].”
But industries like the Rawlings Group are not easy to come by. Oldham Chamber is focusing its resources and programs on attracting more niche employers that may prove to be a perfect fit for the area’s unique attributes, though this is not a simple task.
“When it comes to our office’s efforts to attract new businesses to Oldham County, it’s kind of a tall order because we can’t just bring any type of business in, because if we bring a type of business that doesn’t fit our demographic, we end up actually drawing workers from other communities to fill those jobs – which is great, we like that as well — but in order to move that needle downward on the number of people migrating out for the day, we have to have the types of jobs that fit that group.”
Oldham should prove to be an attractive location for any business that needs educated workers. As previously mentioned, the stellar school system located in the county draws professionals to the area because they want their children to have access to an excellent education. This attraction simply reinforces the concentration of educated professionals in the county who represent a ready and attractive source of talent for any firm that needs highly skilled, highly educated employees.
“Over half our working age population has at least an associate’s degree, and over 40 percent of our working age population has at least a bachelor’s degree. So there’s a high level of education here, therefore we end up with families that are supportive of children being in our school system and the effect is circular in terms of our ability to maintain talent in our county.”
But Bizianes notes that Oldham County is entering a phase of rapid development and he foresees an expansion and period of growth as the Chamber sets its sights on attracting high-value biomedical and healthcare firms, as well as firms related to the information technology sector. Oldham is at a key moment in its history where it will have the opportunity to actively shape its own identity.
“The challenge is that when we look around the county, we only see one employer like the Rawlings Group, and when you look at other industries in Oldham County, it’s kind of a hodgepodge of things but there’s no one industry that we can point to that’s heavily invested in here. The downside of not identifying with a particular industry is that it is difficult for us to point to a particular investment in our community and market it to similar employers in that industry. But the upside to not having that identity is that we get to decide what our identity is going to be. And when we look at the assets that we have around the county, we notice that there are a lot of biomedical and healthcare start-ups and small businesses that are in pockets around the county,” he explains.
“We’ve been making an effort this year to build strong lines of communications with those businesses so that we can find out what kind of assets they require to put down some deep roots here so our community can grow. One of the other areas we are targeting is information technology and IT services – there is a drastic need to fill those types of jobs and we have a population that can fit those types of roles.”
Beyond the wealth of skilled workers, recent infrastructure improvements in the county and the region have further spurred interest in Oldham.
“We are at a very interesting time in our county’s growth because we are at a tipping point with a lot of businesses looking to move to Oldham County. And what has provided a catalyst for this is the infrastructure improvements that our local government has worked on, as well as some of the infrastructure that has been developed in our region. For example, there’s a bridge in Louisville that was just completed a few weeks ago and is now open to the public which has opened up a new artery to southern Indiana; because of that bridge, it will be a lot easier for people to get into Oldham County. That bridge also connects to Interstate 71. So with the completion of the Louisville East End Bridge and the recent announcement of a widening of Interstate 71, we’ve had a dramatic increase in the number of inquiries from people seeking to move and expand businesses into Oldham County.”
Bizianes notes that most of the recent interest stems from the retail industry as well as the manufacturing sector. Given that Oldham is located very close to the Ford truck plant, to UPS, and to an Amazon fulfillment centre, Oldham is seeing an uptick in inquiries from peripheral and supporting companies that fuel those large companies and manufacturers. The county is keen to “roll out the welcome mat.” Bizianes observes that the County’s low tax structure and lack of occupational tax in the county (with the exception of the City of La Grange, but even that is low, at one percent) makes the county an attractive site for business. Most counties in Kentucky have occupational taxes – Louisville’s is 2.23 percent and that tax is paid by employees, so while it isn’t a significant deterrent to business owners, it is a big advantage for employees and can act as an additional retention incentive.
“Oldham is a largely Republican county and the significance of that is that it is a fiscally conservative county. We have a very good financial position and are very friendly to private industry,” states Bizianes.
An additional economic development asset is Oldham Reserve Business Park. Started as a partnership between the County and the city of La Grange, 1,000 acres were purchased and zoned to create a mixed-use industrial park, which would bring in high-end office space, flex manufacturing, and even residential and retail components. “The entire idea of the campus is as a place where you can live work and play.”
The Rawlings Group is the anchor tenant of the park. Though the development of the park was slowed somewhat by the recent recession, this slow-down proved a boon to Oldham because it allowed time to develop additional infrastructure to serve the park. “In 2015 we created an overpass that opened up a new access point to the park, and in 2018, the La Grange Parkway will connect that overpass to Highway 53.” These infrastructure improvements, combined with others in the region, are expected to draw a tremendous number of new businesses to the area.
What’s next for Oldham County? Bizianes reports that the County is currently seeking to create a healthcare incubator for the area to support the development of healthcare businesses in the county. He also notes the expansion of the Kentucky Artisan Distillery, as well as the recent announcement by 3rd Turn Brewing that they will be breaking ground on a new brewery and taproom in the county. In addition, the historic Hermitage Farms, a world-class equine development operation, has announced that it plans a large expansion of its facilities to “celebrate Kentucky’s signature industries – food, bourbon, and horses.” Hermitage will construct an on-site restaurant that will serve dishes made with local produce, and will feature a gourmet bourbon experience for its guests.
The future for Oldham is clearly an expansive one, both economically and culturally.