A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Tri-ED celebrates 30 years of economic development success brought about through collaboration

By Mark Hansel
NKyTribune managing editor

The Northern Kentucky Tri-County Economic Development Corporation (Tri-ED) will celebrate its 30th anniversary tonight in conjunction with the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce Annual Dinner.

Tri-ED President and CEO Dan Tobergte explained that every five years, Tri-ED marks its anniversary with events.


“This year we are combining with the Chamber to commemorate it here in September,” Tobergte said. “We think it’s a good way to consolidate the efforts of recognizing both Tri-ED’s 30th and the inaugural Bill Robinson Economic Development Award.”

Robinson, who died in May, will be posthumously recognized as the first recipient of the award named in his honor and was the visionary behind the creation of Tri-ED.

He recognized that Northern Kentucky’s three northernmost counties could accomplish much more working collaboratively than separately and the growth in the region, with Tri-Ed as its economic development engine, has borne that out.

In 1987, Tri-ED helped the region realize $69 million in capital investment. In 2017, year-to-date, that figure is just short of $1.58 billion and Northern Kentucky has benefited from more than $8.2 billion in capital investment over Tri-ED’s lifetime.

Put into perspective, $8.2 billion is the amount that produced the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. It could also finance the City of Chicago operations for one year

The 66,077 jobs generated by that capital investment is more than enough to fill Paul Brown Stadium (seating capacity is 65,535) or sell out Rupp Arena for three UK games (seating capacity is 23,500).

Key members of Tri-Ed’s leadership team, including Tobergte, Julie Hopkins, chair of the Tri-County Economic Development Foundation and Kris Knochelmann, Gary Moore and Steve Pendery, judges/executive of Kenton, Boone and Campbell counties, respectively, talked this week about the legacy of the organization and what lies ahead.

Click to enlarge

Tobergte said the project that really put Tri-Ed on the map in the economic development arena was Fidelity Investments, which the organization started working on in 1992 and nailed down two years later.

“That’s where (former Tri-ED executive director) Jim West really went to town and really worked hard with the state,” Tobergte said. “I can always remember the first visit when Jim went down and talked to the Secretary of Economic Development and his comment was, ‘Well what do we need a financial services company in Kentucky for?’ I thought, ‘we’ve got a ways to go here because there had to be some legislation to allow for Fidelity to be able to operate the way they wanted to operate.’”

The state planned to offer Fidelity KJDA, which is a tax credit program that was on the books for manufacturers, but was being rolled out for service and industry companies. Fidelity was the first real company in the industry that could have taken advantage of it.

The state also offered the opportunity to buy all of the land and give it to Fidelity for a $1 per-year lease for 17 years and Fidelity said they would take that instead. That turned out to be the starting point of the 500-job $18 million investment that morphed into a 4,200 job, well over a half-a-billion-dollar total investment.


Fidelity continued to meet the employment requirements and at the end of the 17-year term, bought the 180 acres from the state for $1.

“Tri-Ed had been involved in smaller projects, but Fidelity was the bellwether project that established Tri-ED as an entity that could deliver,” Tobergte said.

The highlight of Tri-ED’s second decade was the attraction of the aerospace company now known as Safran Landing Systems, which has contributed greatly to the growth of that industry in the region and the state.

“Judge Pendery and I took office in 1999 and just a few weeks after that, found out about a ribbon-cutting at a company called A-Carb in Richwood and that has been a tremendous success story,” Moore said. “They have now had three expansions in 19 years. The name has changed from A-Carb to Messier-Bugati to Safran along the way and they have been very engaged in the community.”

Tobergte said that deal took a lot of effort and Tri-ED had to outmaneuver a company in North Carolina that was also trying to lure A-Carb.

“They wanted to be here because they knew of the geographic proximity they would have to a power plant and they knew that there were aerospace skills in the community. A lot of our companies serve GE, so they knew that.”

Tri-ED had assembled 70-acres of land and was ready to transfer it to A-Carb, which was a French company, negotiating with the Canadian company that held title to the property.

Tri-ED had a buyback clause if the Canadian company didn’t produce and it had not.

“The real problem was, I let the Canadian company know it was a French company that wanted to buy,” Tobergte said. “The Canadian company said they would sell the land back but because now that it was assembled property, it was much more valuable. We had to have two different appraisals and we almost lost the deal.”

When the $31 million facility opened in 2000, 61 people were employed there. Today, 320 people work at the plant and Safran has invested more than $300 million in the facility.

“They started out with just the carbon fiber disk,” Tobergte said. “Now they are into the whole wheel and brake assembly for military, civilian and commercial aircraft all across the world and we hope they keep expanding. Of the projects that we could point to that Tri-ED made a difference on, that would be in our top five.”

In January of 1999, Ashland Inc., relocated to Northern Kentucky from Eastern Kentucky. Hopkins, who is Sr. Group Counsel – Labor and Employment for Ashland Inc., started with the company a few months after the move and is very familiar with the role Tri-ED played in the company’s decision.

She said the Ashland’s then-CEO called Tobergte up on a Sunday and told him they were considering a move. Tobergte arranged a tour of the region and pointed to all of the quality-of-life amenities that Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati had to offer and Tri-ED closed the deal.

A snapshot of 30 years of accomplishments at Tri-ED (click to enlarge)

“It was about a two-and-a-half hour move and we moved everybody who wanted to come,” Hopkins said. “Everybody was getting settled in and really enjoying the schools and neighborhoods. That was part of the reason Ashland wanted to move from Eastern Kentucky. It was much easier to recruit and attract talent to this area.”

Some employees who grew up in Ashland were a bit apprehensive at first, but Hopkins said that changed quickly and even after they have retired, many have stayed in this area.

In August 2016, CTI Clinical Trial and Consulting Services announced plans to relocate its headquarters to Covington from Blue Ash, with a $36.4 million investment projected that would create up to 500 Kentucky-resident jobs.

Knochelmann said that win was aided in great part because of the opportunity to partner with the Catalytic Fund and with its CEO, Jeanne Schroer, making a social connection.

“Jeanne Schroer kind of opened her house up to them and that was noted by the CTI leadership,” Knochelmann said. “They were kind of surprised by not only how it was done, but where it was done and the fact that this is not just buildings, but it’s people and we’re there to help each other be successful.”

Bill Robinson helped spur that spirit of cooperation early on by suggesting that the judges/executive of Boone, Campbell and Kenton Counties rotate terms as Tri-ED board chair.

“It is peculiar that the three counties work together as closely as they do, with a common purpose, sincerity and collegiality, that other parts of the state find hard to believe, but it works for us,” Pendery said. “Our constituents are benefiting tremendously from the jobs that are drawn into the area, whether they are in Kenton, Campbell or Boone and manufacturing is a primary industry that brings money into the community, but that also goes into hospitality and the entertainment industry. A rising tide lifts all boats and we all know that.”

Protocol calls for the sitting Tri-ED chair to take the lead role in announcing major economic development events, regardless of which of the three counties they take place in. Moore recalls presiding over an event in Silver Grove, in Campbell County, that was attended by then-Governor Paul Patton.

“He was so impressed that we give up the podium to a neighboring county judge to preside over a groundbreaking or ribbon-cutting, but that’s the ultimate sign of regionalism,” Moore said.

County leaders realized early on that by working collectively the region has so much more to offer.

“If Tri-ED did not exist, each county would have an economic development department, a person heading that up, just looking at their county and I think the level of quality of staff would be much less,” Moore said.

There would also be a lot less clout in Frankfort.

“It’s not just a pleasant fantasy that it works for everybody, it’s born out in the economic statistics,” Pendery said.

Tobergte describes economic development as a full contact sport and said collaboration and confidence in all participants to be discreet and work toward a common vision is essential.

“We’re selective in the projects we go after and we don’t chase everything, but I feel good that we can call upon the judge/executives to be at the table as ambassadors for the region and be very confidential about it,” he said.

In the early years of Tri-ED, each county put up $50,000 which was matched by the business community. In 1994, with the assistance of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, the three counties put together an interlocal agreement that shared the motor vehicle license (rental car) fee.

Most of the revenue comes from the airport, but it is shared by all three counties. That decision raised the Tri-ED budget from $300,000 to $700,000 in the first year. It has since increased to $1.8 million.

Tobergte said the job of Tri-ED is to attract new companies and encourage those that are looking to expand in the region, but it is important to be up front and honest about the issues Northern Kentucky is facing.

“Companies know there is no utopia,” he said. “We talk to prospects about those things and show how we are trying to address those community issues.”

Knochelmann said the key takeaway for those who might be looking at Tri-ED’s 30-year history, is sometimes they are the worst salesman to tell the story about their own success.

“It took me a little while to understand that Tri-Ed’s focus in day-to-day, daily battles has really been a strength,” Tobergte said. “You are not always going to have home runs, but by doing the basics and keeping the focus on that, you win those battles and that makes the organization stronger.

There have been examples over the years where Tri-ED has worked diligently to keep companies in  Northern Kentucky, and that’s not the sort of thing that anyone wants publicized, but it is critical to the region’s success.

Hopkins said a lot of attention gets paid to generating new industry, but something you see in Tri-ED’s history over the last 20 years has been the amount of value the region gets from business expansion and retention.

“When you already have a good corporate citizen here and you can help them grow…that is a really important service that Tri-Ed performs,” Hopkins said. “Look at the expansions at Safran, Mubea and others. They’ve had a good experience here and when it comes time to grow or consolidate we get high marks.”

Probably the biggest win for Tri-ED and Northern Kentucky was announced just this year.

In January, Amazon Prime Air announced plans to build a $1.49 billion hub in Boone County on land owned by Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. The project has been described as transformational for the region.

“Just having an investment of that type, it’s very gratifying to know that much money can be invested in our community with the hopes of the return that they are going to get and they are trusting our community to deliver,” Tobergte said.

Tri-ED is also reportedly in the running to bring Amazon’s second World Headquarters to Northern Kentucky.

“We are actively working that and I can share that because it’s public, otherwise we wouldn’t acknowledge whether we are working with a company or not,” Tobergte said.

Knochelmann said the Amazon Prime deal demonstrates one of the challenges Tri-ED faces as it moves into the next decades of operation. The agreement to bring the largest project in the region’s history went from an idea to a done deal in about four months.

“That shows that business is moving faster and faster, and we’ve got to evolve in the same way.”

Contact Mark Hansel at mark.hansel@nkytribune.com

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