Of all the events hosted in London and Laurel County, what is the biggest tourism draw?
That was the question posed by Paula Thompson, executive director of the London-Laurel County Industrial Development Authority, during a public meeting held at the Laurel County Public Library on Thursday night.
While most people immediately answered The World Chicken Festival, Thompson responded that the annual archery tournament brings more people to the area instead. That tournament nets around 600 participants, but brings in additional family and friends to the area.
"The hotels and motels from Richmond to Williamsburg are booked," she said. "This is the biggest tourism event in the county. These people eat and shop while they're here."
What's new still looms ahead with Thompson commenting that several businesses are expanding while the future of others remains in limbo. Examples of that include the Levi Jackson State Park which is being considered for purchase by the City of London.
Another business development hanging in uncertainty is the property off Exit 29 that has been a conflict between London and Corbin for years.
The recent closing of Crooked Creek Golf Club, which brought the Amateur Junior Golf Association tournament to the area, is also a question for the future.
Thompson said two new restaurants were opening soon in London - one on Broad Street and the other on South US 25 near Wendy's.
She also announced that Uber is in London - with Conley Hibbitts as the first Uber driver in the area. Thompson also addressed the revitalization of downtown London - an effort that has encountered numerous blocks over the years.
"There are many of the old buildings that are not up to (building) code," she explained. "Some of them would take $200,000 of investment to get to code. If the owners want to sell, businesses can't afford the price and the money it would take to get them operating. Some of the owners don't want to or aren't ready to sell. You can't force someone to sell something."
But steps are being taken to improve the downtown area, one of which she announced during Thursday's meeting.
In the downtown area, Block 300 is the latest proposal to revitalize the business hub. That project will offer renovation to empty buildings with luxurious apartments overhead. The existing property has been vacant for several years will host shopping and eateries to make downtown a destination once again.
The buildings are across the street from First Christian Church - an area that has featured wood-covered windows and murals to block the view of the vacant space. Thompson added that Weaver's Hot Dogs is also adding a food truck on their vacant lot on Main Street so that those wishing to stop by and enjoy one of their legendary hot dogs can do so with more convenience.
"We're working very, very hard to make downtown boom," she said.
Thompson added that London and Laurel County has undergone an industrial and retail boom over the past few years. One of the reasons is its location between two major roadways - Interstate 75 and Hal Rogers Parkway. Add in US 25, which is set for widening this year and the area is a prime selection for industries wishing to establish and/or expand. That easy accessibility to major roadways is what drew businesses such as Walmart Distribution Center and automobile parts manufacturing companies to the area, Thompson added.
The county also boasts seven industrial parks - the latest being the Greer Industrial Park off US 25 and KY 1006.
"Laurel County has great success with our industrial parks. We are the only county in the state that has seven industrial parks," Thompson said. "We start out by buying a really large parcel of land and then we either wait for a client to come in and want the whole thing or we start to chisel it up and start separating it for this business or that business. It's critical today that they are near an interstate, that they are not in a residential area and that they have great access."
The Fariston Industrial Park, for example, is between London and Corbin, but none of the businesses in that park have semi trucks shipping out products such as other parks.
That area is also the home of the new Laurel County Correctional Center.
Accessibility for retail businesses such as restaurants and stores is another aspect of business growth, and London continues to work on improving that for potential and existing businesses.
Laurel Grocery at the intersection of KY 192 Bypass and KY 229 was the first industrial park, followed by Walmart DC with over 100 acres off West KY 80, Aisin Automotive purchased the third park property off U.S. 25 South and has undergone several expansions. The Pennington Park off West KY 80 is 215 acres with 3,500 employees and expansion for Senture in the future. The Dennis Karr Airpark is located off KY 1006 and hosts several businesses that also includes the building formerly known as General Dynamics, now known as Maximus Federal. The most recent park is Greer Industrial Park which has just completed its first build-ready spot.
"Infrastructure such as water, sewer and electric is a must," she said. "So we can't go way out on (KY) 30 and buy 100 acres where there's so sewer or water for industrial park."
Thompson added that the Fariston Industrial Park also adjoins the new Laurel County Detention Center property, which will house 663 beds. She said that facility will be used to house male inmates while the jail in downtown London will be used for female inmates.
Although Thompson's title is industrial recruiter, she said she is "all about" bringing jobs to the area, whether it is industrial or retail. She explained that most companies looking at the Laurel area are based elsewhere and look for expansions or new branches. While the industrial authority's primary role is to provide buildings and infrastructure for those prospective businesses, Thompson also fills the role of supporting those businesses in their new endeavor as well as helping other companies looking to expand.
While the occupation of the former Kmart building will host four businesses, only one spot has not yet been announced. Thompson said that announcement is coming soon, but did confirm that Planet Fitness, Kohl's and Five Below will locate in that plaza.
The work force and tax base are other factors businesses look at when viewing availability to locate in London. Laurel County has three Fed-X facilities, a UPS hub, nine call centers, several trucking and automotive production centers and a wealth of other businesses available that draws employees from other surrounding counties.
Thompson added that 60 percent of the county's work force is comprised of people from other counties who take advantage of the area's good-paying jobs not offered in their home counties. With new businesses coming into the area and expansions and additions being planned for others, Thompson said the future looks very bright for the area.