Community should create a business incubator locally

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Guest column by Matt Wyatt

Nearly every Elizabethtown historian can tell you how Samuel Haycraft Jr., son of the town’s founder, wrote in 1869, “For who can tell what Elizabethtown will be, with her delightful location, her enterprising and energetic population … her future manufactories that must spring up … when it becomes a large city it will be well to look back upon her starting point.”

Here we are, almost 150 years later, and in some ways that future still awaits.

Manufacturing remains an important part of our history and our story today. Yet despite the benefit of the auto industry’s regional investment and the potential opportunities from the Fort Knox base realignment, each spring we see local high school and college graduates compelled to leave for jobs in other cities. This is particularly the case if they are craving an entrepreneurial work environment and experience and training in the technology sector.

In the wake of the economic downturn and slow recovery, entrepreneurship has taken center stage and no matter what the sector, technology is a critical component for entrepreneurial growth and success. For those experiences and opportunities, Elizabethtown just can’t compete.

We’ve seen tech businesses that could come to Elizabethtown find homes elsewhere in Kentucky or out of state. And Fort Knox is looking beyond our community to find new employees with the technical training required.

We can turn this around if we create a high-tech incubator, one that fuels business development, jobs, mentorship, education and training to serve our community and our state.

Elizabethtown brings together all the key ingredients to make a high-tech incubator an attractive concept: We live at the geographic nexus of Lexington, Bowling Green and Louisville; we have Western Kentucky University and Elizabethtown Community and Technical College, along with two exceptional school districts. We live off Interstate 65, the Blue Grass and Western Kentucky parkways, connecting us to every region of the state. Our county and city have done an excellent job managing resources; we live in one of the least taxed counties in the Commonwealth.

Business incubators enable entrepreneurial companies to survive and grow during the start-up phase. A high-tech incubator would enable regional small tech companies to get the resources they need — from advanced office space, access to angel investors and business mentorship to proximity to university research and other tools for leadership and growth.

For a high-tech incubator to succeed, it needs a local employee base that can support its growing businesses. A high-tech incubator would not only create jobs, but also facilitate mentorship and job training of our community.

We can follow the model set by Code Louisville, providing training and certification to students and long-time residents alike, building a stronger employee and talent base here at home.

How can we make this happen?

By facilitating a partnership between the Elizabethtown Industrial Foundation, North Hardin Economic Development Authority, Western Kentucky University, the cities of Elizabethtown and Radcliff, Hardin County government, Hardin County Chamber of Commerce, Central Kentucky Community Foundation, our state government and other key partners, we can establish such an incubator for our community. Using the local industrial foundation as a model, an Elizabethtown High-Tech Foundation would lead the effort, attracting participating companies, private sector investment and managing the facility and its mentoring and training programs.

New uses of vacant local facilities would enable us to get started with a relatively small investment. And now that the Hardin County government is moving out of Elizabethtown’s downtown, an incubator possibly could inhabit the vacant buildings and help revitalize the area.

My own experience is undoubtedly mirrored among other loyal Elizabethtown residents. I founded a software company now based in Louisville, but I’d gladly move it back to Elizabethtown if our community supported the employee base we need of coders and technology-trained workers.

Kentucky already supports 11 business technology incubators across the state — not just in the bigger cities, but also in towns such as Ashland and Murray. Elizabethtown has invested millions to attract youth sports events and foster tourism with our new sports park. A high-tech incubator, bringing high-paying jobs and skills development to our residents, is an investment that will pay off for generations to come.

Matt Wyatt, a member of the Elizabethtown Independent Schools Board and an Elizabethtown resident for 35 years, is the founder and CEO of Volition Software and Strategic Campaign Media. He can be reached at matt@victorypoll.com.  

Matt Wyatt, a member of the Elizabethtown School Board and an Elizabethtown resident for 35 years, is the founder and CEO of Volition Software and Strategic Campaign Media. He can be reached at matt@victorypoll.com.