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Since 1972, Industrial Foundation has been working to bring jobs to the community

By Stephen Lega

In 1972, six men got together to form an organization to stimulate business, commercial and manufacturing activity in Marion County.

Today, that organization, the Marion County Industrial Foundation, provides oversight to the Marion County Economic Development Office, and it could affect what Lebanon and Marion County will look like in the future. The foundation owns more than 330 acres of land (along Hwy. 208 and at the intersection of Hwy. 49 and the Marion County Veterans Memorial Highway), all of which will be used to recruit more businesses to locate in the community.

The foundation recently presented its annual report to the Lebanon City Council and the Marion County Fiscal Court. The report listed the organization's goals, which include supporting existing industries, improving the image of Lebanon and Marion County and working with the agricultural sector of the local economy.

But Tom Lund, the Marion County economic development executive director, had a more succinct way of stating the foundation's function.

"The purpose is to create jobs and to alleviate any poverty in the community," he said.

That purpose seems particularly prescient at a time when the national employment rate was 9.7 percent (as of December), the state unemployment rate was 10.4 percent and the county's unemployment rate was 11.8 percent.

Coincidentally, creating new employment opportunities was what the founders of the industrial foundation hoped to do Sept. 28, 1972, when T.E. "Gene" Spragens Jr., James L. Avritt Sr., Joe Price, Ed Marrett, Charles Lancaster and H.E. O'Daniel signed the foundation's articles of incorporation. Spragens was the first president of the foundation.

One month after it's incorporation, the foundation started the process of acquiring property, beginning with two farms containing close to 95 acres. The foundation was able to gain control of that land by agreeing to pay two promissory notes, each worth $35,000, to Jenny D. Sansbury.

Lund said private entities came together to make that initial purchase on Metts Drive. Today, the foundation uses the proceeds from the sale of its property to purchase more land to be developed.

George Spragens, the son of Gene Spragens and now himself a member of the industrial foundation, said some people questioned how successful the foundation could be at the time it was formed. Years later, the property from that initial purchase became the Marion County Industrial Park.

According to George Spragens, there is a lesson to be learned from the foundation's initial investment.

"Actions taken today may not bear fruit immediately, but commitment and persistence over many years are what is needed to have a lasting impact," he wrote in an email.

Local attorney Freddie Higdon has been a member of the foundation since 1988. He has served as president since 1997.

According to Higdon, the foundation originally operated as an independent organization. It was a group of private individuals trying to bring business to the community.

With time, they realized they needed someone working full-time on recruiting efforts. Those efforts eventually become part of the duties of the Lebanon-Marion County Chamber of Commerce.

In fact, Lund said he was worked on economic development in the chamber office when he was hired in 1992. Shortly thereafter, economic development and the chamber became separate entities.

Today, the office of economic development is funded by the industrial foundation, the City of Lebanon and the Marion County Fiscal Court. The board of the industrial foundation oversees the economic development office, and that board includes representatives from business, financial institutions, government and the chamber of commerce.

The foundation, the City of Lebanon, the Marion County Fiscal Court and the Lebanon-Marion County Chamber of Commerce provide funding for the economic development office. The city and the county provide $213,000 combined for economic development. The industrial foundation contributes $5,000 and the chamber provides $2,500.

Lund said when economic development became its own office, the foundation decided to focus on four areas: recruiting new industries, retaining and expanding existing industries, Main Street and tourism. He added that the reason for the foundation's involvement in some of those areas is obvious, but the other areas are important as well.

"A lot of people come in and they want to see Main Street," he said. "They say from Main Street you can tell how much pride a community has."

At the time Lund arrived, tourism was one of the largest employment industries in the state.

"There was some potential there to become involved in tourism," he said.

Lebanon has its own tourism commission now, and Lund is a member of that commission.

Around the time economic development separated from the chamber, a flurry of industrial activity also took place, based on property records in the Marion County Clerk's Office. Since 1992, the foundation has recruited 30 industries to Marion County, according to Lund.

"That's when we started to reap the harvest of the seeds that had been sown over all those years," Higdon said.

Some of those factories have come and gone, but others have stayed and grown. Lund estimated that about 4,000 jobs have been created in the community as a result of the foundation's recruiting efforts.

Higdon added that recruiting industry to any community is the result of years of effort, all of which are intended to make the county an attractive location for a business. Some of the results of those efforts are visible along Metts Drive and at a second industrial park on Ky. 55, on the north side of Lebanon.

In Higdon's view, a variety of factors have allowed the industrial foundation to be aggressive in its recruiting efforts and to become "one of the leading, if not the leading, community economic development organizations" in Kentucky

"That's through the school of hard knocks, planning, observing, networking, the talents of our economic development director, the progressiveness of our city and county government, and the remarkable strides of the education system in Marion County," he said.

The foundation has become particularly interested in promoting technical education, even as it continues its efforts to recruit new industry to the community. In fact, the foundation has been one of the most vocal supporters of the efforts to expand the Marion County Area Technology Center. The foundation even worked to obtain a grant, which allowed new equipment to be purchased for the tech center.

Higdon said the foundation has known that technical education is important because of what it has heard both from existing industries and industries it has recruited.

The most recent public recruitment effort involved Rancho Poultry, a food processing business that initially announced it would open a $43-million plant in Lebanon (near Hwy. 208) that would have employed hundreds of people. Unfortunately, Rancho Poultry officials instead decided to renovate an existing facility, because of the cost savings and the downward turn in the economy.

Nevertheless, Lund told city and county officials that the service road construction and the extension of water and sewer service to the intended Rancho Poultry site could make it an attractive site to other food processing companies.

George Spragens added that the foundation is also working on the development of the Crossroads project, which is located near the intersection of Hwy. 49 and the Marion County Veterans Memorial Highway (the Lebanon bypass).

Going forward, the foundation will continue its efforts to recruit quality, good paying jobs to Marion County, he wrote. In order to do so, George Spragens stressed that it would need the cooperation of government and education officials and that it would require leaders with a long-term vision.

Spragens is convinced that those efforts have paid off and will continue to pay off for the community.

"At the time I graduated high school, if you stood at the intersection of Miller Pike and U.S. 68 most mornings you would have seen a long line of vehicles heading south to jobs that were not in Marion County," he wrote. "Stand at the same intersection most mornings now and you'll see a long line of vehicles coming into Marion County, where the jobs are."

   Marion County Industrial Foundation Board of Directors

The members of the industrial foundation's board of directors have changed over the years. The board includes local leaders in business, civic organizations, financial institutions and government.

The board is responsible for overseeing the Marion County Economic Development Office. 

These are the members:

• Tom Lund, executive director, Marion County Economic Development Office

• Freddie Higdon (president), Spragens and Higdon Law Office

• Larry Tatum (vice president)

• Jimmy Thomas (secretary/treasurer)   • Bobby Miles, Peoples Bank   • George Spragens, Farmers National Bank   • John Turner (executive committee), Angell-Demmel   • Peggy Peterson, Peoples Bank   • Jimmy Higdon, Higdon's Foodtown, State Senator   • Joe H. Spalding   • Mike Sherrod, CEO, Spring View Hospital   • Gary Crenshaw, mayor, City of Lebanon   • John G. Mattingly, judge/executive, Marion County

• Brad Mattingly, Lebanon-Marion County Chamber of Commerce president