Split decision in CJ poll points to a bright future

Jeff Neal

It's rare that a community can be split four ways about a topic and it's an indication that things are looking up rather than a sign of apocalyptic-level strife.

But that was the case with a recent Commonwealth Journal website poll. The question took four projects that are in the works in Pulaski County and asked our readers which one they thought would have the greatest impact on our community.

You won't see a poll much closer than this:

• The Ky. 80/Ky. 461 interchange was the top choice at 26.6 percent. Sure, road work isn't as sexy as a new college or new industry -- but this construction could mean business for our community down the road ... no pun intended.

The project -- spearheaded by SPEDA -- has been made possible by a strong partnership at the federal, state, and local levels. Local representatives are also working with Frankfort on an even larger project that would connect the cloverleaf to a northern bypass around Somerset and what's being called the "I-65 Spur" -- re-designating the road between Bowling Green and Somerset as part of the interstate system. The work being done now is "laying the groundwork" for that grander plan, said SPEDA president Chris Girdler.

"It will connect just north of Somerset, near the Pleasant Hill community; all of that right-of-way has been purchased, from U.S. 27 to Ky. 39, and we're now looking from Ky. 39 to Ky. 80 setting up the foundation for the future construction of the northern bypass," said Girdler. He acknowledged that there is similarity between this plan and the seemingly abandoned effort from past years to develop I-66 through Somerset, but one key difference is not taking it to London but rather cutting north onto Ky. 461 to hook onto I-75 around Mt. Vernon, more directly benefitting Valley Oak.

"If all this happens in the next three to five years, we'll have an officially designated interstate from Bowling Green to Somerset," said Girdler. "People might say, 'How does that help anyway? You're just changing the road name.' It helps tremendously. When talking to folks outside the community, outside the state, when they see the blue interstate sign on the map, it makes a world of difference as far as accessibility and logistics for any company."

And anything that brings business into Pulaski County is a huge plus.

• The University of Somerset was second at 26.4 percent. This project perhaps has the most question-marks. There's been concerns locally about the direct involvement of Somerset Mayor Alan Keck, displaced citizens around the future site of the university and also fears the University of Somerset would have a "right-leaning" bent.

But all the speculation aside, the bottom line is there is enormous potential for a downtown university. If it's done right and gets off the ground, the University of Somerset could transform our town. Think Centre College at Danville. That would be incredible.

And while the infrastructure-related interchange will hopefully bring business into the county, the university could help prevent our young people from exiting Pulaski County.

Congressman Hal Rogers calls losing bright young people to other college towns as "brain drain."

The University of Somerset -- along with enhanced programs at Somerset Community College and Campbellsville University-Somerset -- could keep our best and brightest right here in Somerset.

• AppHarvest came in No. 3 at 23.9 percent. Pulaski County is truly blessed to have this high-agrotech company in the Shopville community.

The public corporation focuses on farming which uses up to 90 percent less water than open-field agriculture and only recycled rainwater. Somerset's high-tech indoor farm, expected to be completed by the end of next year, will grow strawberries year-round with a multi-million-dollar investment expected to add hundreds of new jobs to the local economy.

"This is really a dream coming true," Congressman Rogers said, referring to his long-held belief that young people shouldn't have to leave the region to find careers. "We're so indebted to [AppHarvest CEO Jonathan Webb] for your vision and determination to make good things happen, especially in eastern Kentucky.…We're on the leading edge of something very big strategically for the community and the state, for your families, but also to the nation."

Let's keep our fingers crossed that Webb's investment in our community doesn't stop with strawberries.

• And Horse Soldier Bourbon was fourth at 23.1 percent. Again, this is a project that could be transformative for the community.

It's been Keck's vision to have Somerset on the fabled Bourbon Trail -- and Horse Soldier's presence is likely to turn the trick.

Once a $50 million project, that number has tripled and the distillery site will now feature "activities and adventures, outdoor event spaces, a chapel, high-end hospitality and overnight accommodations, unique dining options and retailers and a distillery and visitor's experience unlike any other," according to the project plan submitted to the City of Somerset.

There will be a projected 650,000 visitors to the distillery annually. That number seems high, but if tourists on the Bourbon Trail follows it south (Somerset would be the furthest entry south), you'd have a start on those lofty goals. Add in regional traffic which would visit the complex to eat and shop, and the Ohio Navy factor (around four million people visit the Lake Cumberland area annually) and Horse Soldier Bourbon could mean big business for Pulaski County.

Horse Soldier projects the number construction jobs created due to the project would be 943 directly, with another 414 jobs created indirectly throughout the Pulaski area.

Once completed and up to full staff, Horse Soldier predicts it will support a total of 846 employees throughout the region.

The project would generate $101 million in state and local tax over a 20-year period.

So it's no wonder people are split on this poll question.

Quite frankly it's hard to select one of these projects over another -- because all four could have a tremendous impact on life in Pulaski County.

Let's hope all four come off without a hitch.

JEFF NEAL is the Editor of the Commonwealth Journal. Reach him at jneal@somerset-kentucky.com.

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