A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Crume completes transformation of NKY Tri-ED; implements new economic development strategy

By Mark Hansel
Special to NKyTribune

Since his appointment as President and CEO of Northern Kentucky Tri-ED (Tri-ED) in April 2019, Lee Crume has overseen a major transformation of the 33-year-old organization.

Tri-ED is the economic development company that works to attract, retain and foster businesses in Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties.

Lee Crume has spearheaded a major transformation of the region’s economic development engine (Photo by Mark Hansel)

Its transformation included building a new team to implement a shift in approach to economic development and entrepreneurship and Crume believes that task is now complete.

Crume came to Tri-ED with an extensive career in the private sector, including more than 25 years of business development experience.

Prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Crume sat down with the Northern Kentucky Tribune to talk about his first year on the job and plans for the ongoing implementation of that new strategy.

Crume said the environment in Northern Kentucky offers a great opportunity because the region is more than friendly, it is welcoming.

“A lot of communities are friendly, but not every community will welcome you into to their homes, have you over for dinner, and I think that’s one of the great things about Northern Kentucky,” Crume said. “It has been very easy for us to get this company rebuilt with the support of the community.

“We’ve done an enormous amount of work, pouring the foundation, getting the right people hired, and getting people trained in the right spot, so we can go out and be successful. We’ve had the best people that have raised their hands and say they want to work here, but culturally how they have clicked and worked together has been the real blessing.”

When Crume interviewed for the job at Tri-ED he said he was impressed by the spirit of cooperation emphasized by the region’s judge/executives, Gary Moore from Boone County, Campbell County’s Steve Pendery and Kris Knochelmann of Kenton County.

“All three judge-executives talked about how they get together, collaborate and work together,” Crume said.

He also wondered how that would work among the leaders of the region’s 37 cities and was pleasantly surprised.

The Tri-ED company team

“In the course of a week, I saw (several of them) and the cooperation with those mayors is fantastic,” Crume said.

One place he thinks Tri-ED can improve is in telling the region’s story externally.

“We’ve got two external audiences,” he said. “One is Frankfort, where we need the support of the state to be successful. Then we’ve got attraction and bringing new clients in and you have to give them a sense of who you are and where you are and why you are, in a very concise, specific manner and that’s not always easy to do.”

He believes Northern Kentucky has an opportunity to be an engine, or a catalyst for growth, throughout the state.

“If we can be successful and generate growth and jobs, which ultimately generates tax revenue, that then allows the state to start to lift everybody up,” he said. “If you starve Northern Kentucky of the resources that it needs, then nobody is going to be lifted up.”

While Northern Kentucky has its own identity, Crume said it’s also important to take advantage of its position as part of the Cincinnati Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) and the name recognition that comes with that.

“If you’re one of our region’s leading manufacturers like Mazak, or Bosch, or Safran, you can put cargo directly on a DHL flight or take it 75 miles away and put it on a UPS flight,” Crume said. “A year from now our manufacturers will be able to put it on an Amazon plane as cargo, it can go on a Delta plane today as cargo. Your ability as a manufacturer to support your clients via instant nonstop access is critical.”

Using our most valuable resource — land — wisely is a priority for Tri-ED, he said.

Crume recognizes that the availability of land that fits the needs of prospective clients is a priority.

Crume and NKY Chamber CEO Brent Cooper at the opening of renovated offices pre-COVID.

“Northern Kentucky is a big area but right now we lack available and shovel-ready sites. So making sure we use our land assets in a way that is conducive to the type of growth and development we want to see is an enormous challenge,” he said. “Our clients want to move on a very fast timeframe, to being up and operational, so having land that is ready when they call is a critical need.”

Crume describes Tri-ED’s relationship with its neighbors across the river, and specifically REDI Cincinnati, as “fantastic.”

The ability of Northern Kentucky to distinguish itself, based on its own benefits to prospective clients, has helped drive that rapport.

“We have a responsibility to make sure that we are a thriving, attractive, vibrant part of the community and when we do that, we have every right to claim our seat at the table in our metropolitan region,” Crume said. “When we do that, we sit across the table from what so far to me have been a lot of smart, talented, dedicated colleagues on the other side of the river.”

Crume views having 20 percent of the population in an MSA of 2 million people as an asset.

“I’m going to sell the attributes and the virtues of the metropolitan area,” Crume said. “The client’s needs are going to guide them where they need to go, but when that guides them to Northern Kentucky, that’s a whole different conversation and we’re going to talk up our assets and attributes.”

As the region’s economic development arm, Tri-ED has traditionally been referred to as an organization, but Crume sees it as a company and he sees existing and potential companies as clients.

He explained the distinction in this way.

“We have two service lines and we have very important solutions that we try to provide,” Crume said. “We do the economic development and we do the entrepreneurship and in both cases we are trying to help our clients navigate difficult and risky decision-making processes.”

Economic development is about helping clients invest their capital so their businesses can grow and be successful. Entrepreneurship is focused on the growth and scale of visionary ideas into companies that are relevant in Northern Kentucky.

Lee Crume

“Unlike the private sector, we don’t book a sale, we don’t ship a product, but like the private sector, we have a solution that will help our clients improve the work of their business,” Crume said.

Tri-ED’s role, as Crume sees it, is to take the lead in bringing clients to the community or helping them to grow.

“We have to provide a vision for the community to talk about what’s over the horizon, what other communities are doing, what great looks like, so that this continues to be a thriving place,” he said. “We also have to advise on the competitive, challenge, the risk of not doing something or embracing change that’s out there.”

Sometimes that means attracting new businesses to the region, but more often it is driving the success of Northern Kentucky’s existing companies.

“We take a very active role in going out and connecting with those companies and helping find a way to serve them,” Crume said. “Our goal going into this year was to visit 200 businesses in Northern Kentucky and through that, identify projects and offer really proactive outreach. We’ve made good progress on our goal despite COVID-19 and those visits are happening virtually now.”

The challenges Crume sees to driving continued economic success include workforce, a problem throughout the country. Quality of life amenities have also become a priority for many companies and something that can help a region expand its workforce.

“Workforce is driven through population, so we’ve got to make sure this place is a place where people want to come and live and quality of life amenities are a great way to do that,” Crume said.

When listing the region’s assets, Crume puts Tri-ED right at the top.

“I think we have a great asset in Northern Kentucky Tri-ED and I’m really proud of it,” Crume said. “We have a company, we have services, we have great people that know what we want to do. Today I would take our company and the Northern Kentucky region up against any community.”

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