Business leaders optimistic about area’s economy

By JOHN FRIEDLEIN

Saturday, January 19, 2008 7:41 PM CST

HARDIN COUNTY — Thanks to a double-layered shield of a diverse economy and expected growth in civilian jobs at Fort Knox, this area seems poised to weather the nation’s financial storm.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Lloyd C. Hillard Jr., president and CEO of First Citizens Bank. He’s cautious because the economy is fragile and another jolt — whether it be a nasty meteorological event or worsening of the Mideast situation — could send it into a recession. Also, the once booming housing sector has cooled.

Permits for single-dwelling homes dropped from 418 in 2005 to just 272 in 2007, according to the county Planning and Development Commission. More subdivision plats, however, were submitted for review in ’07 than in ’06.

Also, homes are taking longer to sell, a factor Hillard said could drive down prices and make homeowners feel less well-off financially. So could the recent stock market slide.

Hillard said there is a “financial chill” in the air. Consumers’ uncertainty erodes their confidence. “That’s the main issue right now,” he said.

Initiatives such as President Bush’s proposed stimulus package could help.

Greg Pawley, chief executive officer of The Cecilian Bank, pointed out how the word “recession” keeps popping up in national newscasts.

“I don’t see it that way,” he said. “I’m much more optimistic, I think, than most people.”

The local economy seems to be “somewhat sheltered” from the national downturn, Pawley said. Beneficial factors for the area include easy access to major highways, continued commercial construction and the auto industry’s shift to the south.

Also, local industrial recruiters have helped create a diverse economy that includes agriculture, industry and Fort Knox.

While some areas face high unemployment, a problem here may be a lack of labor.

“We’re going to have to challenge ourselves to attract new qualified people into the market,” Pawley said.

The county’s November unemployment figure — the latest available — is 4.4 percent, which is slightly lower than the state and national numbers, according to the Kentucky Office of Employment and Training. It’s down from 5 percent for November 2006.

Another bright spot is that while the housing market may be slow, it will pick up again and inventory will shrink by the first of next year in what will be a buyer’s market, Pawley said. Anyway, home prices aren’t declining here as they are in places like the West Coast.

Brad Richardson, executive director of both the North Hardin Regional Industrial Authority and One Knox, said he recently spoke to two groups of Realtors whose attitudes were not “all doom and gloom.”

Some builders, though, have more inventory than they would like, Richardson said. This could be related to excitement sparked by the 2005 announcement of Fort Knox realignment. Some early communications may have led developers to build too soon.

The massive human resources complex is scheduled to be fully operational by fall of 2010.

The current excitement swirling around changes at the post contrasts with a historic view of instability — shaped by the ups and downs of troop movements. But Fort Knox will gain 2,000 to 3,000 civilian workers, who won’t be deployed.

“It’s like getting a new manufacturing facility,” Richardson said.

As for the local economy in general, it seems to be doing “pretty well,” he said.

Both Richardson and Rick Games, president of the Elizabethtown-Hardin County Industrial Foundation, have prospects interested in the area.

Games said that while some local businesses have seen staff reductions and are trying to control costs, the community has managed to dodge bullets before when the national economy soured.

He echoed the positive tone of the others.

“I hear mostly good things,” he said.

John Friedlein can be reached at 505-1746, or at jfriedlein@thenewsenterprise.com.

This story, written by John Friedlein, was provided to One Knox courtesy of The News Enterprise. Read more stories from The News Enterprise at www.thenewsenterprise.com.