Industry on mend?

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The recent renewal of investor interest in vacant Industrial Park properties could be a good omen for Frankfort’s historically resilient economy, even as the recovery remains soft nationwide.

Wall Street and the presidential campaigns hang on every shift of business fortunes. On Thursday, the U.S. Labor Department reported unemployment applications grew by 4,000 over the past week to a level that reflects no more than modest hiring. The stock market nonetheless took the relatively small increase as a positive development; prices shot up.

Local news had Aska Corporation, a Japanese company, closing the deal to buy the former R.J. Industries building on Chenault Road. Aska, an automotive parts maker like R.J., has expansion on its mind as it prepares to move from a 20,000-square-foot building nearby into the 156,000-square-foot facility.

The Kentucky Capital Development Corporation, Franklin County’s industrial development authority, has been courting other Japanese automotive industries whose prospectors visited two 60,000-square-foot buildings on Fortune Drive. Kim Smith, KCDC’s interim executive director, has high hopes the companies will find the two factory buildings, offered for $2.4 million and $3.2 million, suitable for their purposes.

There’s a subtle yet palpable change of mood since the automotive market went south during the recession that began five years ago. First of the local factories to depart was Bendix, hurt by a weakening market for brake parts. R.J. followed in 2009. Its work force had plummeted from 150 to 10 since the local plant started in 2000.

Automotive manufacturing boomed in central Kentucky after construction of the mammoth Toyota factory in Georgetown a quarter century ago. But the recession crippled car sales. Now, even though the recovery remains tentative, buyers are beginning to venture back into the showrooms, stirring hopes for prosperous days to come.

The Industrial Park may be of little more than peripheral relevance to local residents who don’t work there, but the business community has long seen it as an essential player to hedge the local economy’s bets.

For decades, Franklin County enjoyed slow but steady growth and stable employment. Its biggest employer was – and is – government, which delivered good-paying jobs and benefits unfazed by the boom-and-bust cycles that plagued more conventional factory towns. Some went so far as to call ours a “depression-proof” economy.

The “Great Recession” belied that myth when it not only idled automotive factories but also depressed government revenue and gradually shrank the public payroll.

The crippling recession altered some of our most cherished economic assumptions. Government was no longer an omnipotent source of prosperity and security, and public faith in business as a dependable creator of middle-income jobs also took a hit.

Committed conservatives prefer private enterprise, which creates wealth, to the public sector, which collects taxes and delivers services not generally available elsewhere. This town depends on both. As long as Frankfort is the capital of Kentucky, public service is likely to remain our biggest industry. But “real” business adds a vitality often missing in officialdom. Diversification makes us a more complete community.

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