Stop the average person on the street, ask them what Kentucky is known for and they’ll probably say horses and basketball. Business won’t likely enter into the conversation.

But business is big in Kentucky. Horses big. Basketball big.

According to information provided by the Tri-County Economic Development Corporation, the greater Cincinnati Metropolitan Statistical Area (Kentucky/Ohio/Indiana) ranked sixth in the country in 2011 among metro areas with a population of 1 million or more in enticing companies to either expand, locate or relocate in the area.

Northern Kentucky’s contribution to that ranking resulted in 1,300 industry jobs and generated $343 million in capital investment, far and away better than its 25-year annual average of $208 million.

Additionally, research done by NKY magazine, primarily through Hoover’s, a leading business industry directory, shows the three counties that comprise NKY — Boone, Campbell, Kenton — have more than 1,000 companies that earned at least $1 million in revenue in 2011.

“Given the size we are, pound-for-pound, that’s a pretty good ratio,” says Steve Stevens, CEO of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

Northern Kentucky also outpaced most small metro areas — regions with at least one urban cluster of 10,000 but less than 50,000 population — in 2011, tying for fourth with the highest number of expansion/location projects (28).

Lion’s Share to Boone

The lion’s share of these —18 — went to Boone County, while Campbell and Kenton had 6 and 4 respectively. As a whole, the three counties far outstripped the rest of the country for metro areas with less than 200,000 population.

And it’s only going to get better. In the next half-dozen years or so, a 2020 Jobs Outlook report projects that the Cincinnati MSA will add more than 300,000 jobs, mostly in the fields of high-tech and healthcare.

So what’s the story here?

Just about any place in the country not named New York or Los Angeles is looking for an edge to attract new business. In any number of regions, the manufacturing sector that once was their lifeblood has dried up faster than a wheat crop in a drought, leaving many of them choking in debt and disillusion. They are competing with one another for investment dollars, kicking, clawing, biting and climbing over one another like players in a rugby scrum.

And yet Northern Kentucky has, for the most part, been able to separate itself from the fray.

One reason for NKY’s success, says Karen Finan, senior director of Tri-Ed, is an aggressive business culture.

“The business community here is proactive in promoting that Northern Kentucky is a good place to do business,” she says.

And one where businesses “feel comfortable,” says Lytle Thomas, president of Heritage Bank and a member of the board of Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

Such was the case for LAP-Laser, a Lueneburg, Germany, company that manufactures industrial laser systems. LAP wanted to relocate its North American sales office from a high-rent Western Ohio location to someplace less expensive and more business friendly. Northern Kentucky was an easy choice.

“We went looking for the best place in the Tristate area to locate,” says Randy Schuster, sales manager for LAP’s industrial systems.

They found it in Erlanger, where they happily discovered they were close to, well, everything.

“There’s a hotel across the street where visitors can stay,” says Schuster. “We’re close to the airport which is a convenience for us to pick people up from Germany, or from out of state. If the price is too high to the Cincinnati airport, as it occasionally is, we have two other major airports — Dayton and Louisville — nearby. We need access to a shipping company and within 15 miles of here I can touch just about any shipping company I want.

“Everything we needed for international commerce was right here.”

United Front

Of course, Northern Kentucky had something to do with making that happen. Several years ago, officials of Boone, Kenton and Campbell put their natural competitive differences aside and agreed to lobby Frankfort together to ensure economic development dollars flowed to the area.

“We figured it was easier to fight these battles as a united front,” says Thomas. “Together, we’re stronger. It’s that whole ‘united we stand, divided we fall’ thing. We went to Frankfort to lobby for the things we needed and that has propelled development in Northern Kentucky.”

Finan says that spirit of cooperation extends to businesses looking for a low-cost, high-quality and approachable area to locate. Besides offering what Finan describes as “aggressive packages in the form of financial incentives” — a recent Tax Foundation report ranked Kentucky as the seventh most business-friendly state in the country for new firms and the sixth lowest-cost state for new corporate headquarters — Northern Kentucky provides access to the right people who can give advice, guidance, whatever a company needs to make a decision about its future.

Businesses Feel Wanted

“We can pick up the phone and speak directly to the people who make decisions and can help move that business forward,” says Finan.

It’s also important, says Stevens, for new businesses to feel wanted.

“When you’re a business that’s kind of looking around to find a place, a home, you want to be a part of a team that will challenge you. You want to feel loved and appreciated and supported, and you do here because we have a group of organizations and leaders who are all in.

“We have a pretty extensive network of what I call helpfulness. These organizations are trying to reach out to businesses on a regular basis, talking to them, listening to them. I think that’s an attitude conducive to growth. (Businesses) think this is a place that wants me and wants me to succeed.”

Location, Location, Location

Janet Harrah, senior director for the Center of Economic Analysis and Development at Northern Kentucky University, says the real advantage of Northern Kentucky is its central location. Nearly 50 percent of the U.S. population is within 600 miles. And then there are the three major interstate highways: I-75, I-71 and I-74.

“We have good transportation, water, an airport close by,” she says. “Not every city has that.”

Thomas agrees.

“What business leaders like is that they can fly into the airport and within 15 minutes be at their plant,” he says. “There’s no place else you can do that.”

Harrah says the area’s diverse economic base is another major factor.

“That means our basic economy is not as volatile as other places,” she says. “We don’t have extreme highs, but we don’t have extreme lows, either.”

Harrah and Thomas also point to a quality of life that might not exist in, say, Camden, New Jersey.

“Most of us who live here love it here,” says Harrah.

“We have great schools, beautiful views, a moderate cost of living. You can get a great house for under $200,000. That won’t even get you a starter home in some places.

“We have major league sports, major league arts, major league entertainment and a full range of shopping opportunities.”

Thomas describes Northern Kentucky as a “comfortable place to settle in.”

“We are very open and welcoming to people relocating to this area,” he says. “It’s part of our personality. It’s easy to network here, easy to get introduced. That’s a factor not quantifiable by numbers. It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe, but very real.”

Investment in Education

The final piece of the puzzle to Northern Kentucky’s success in attracting business is an educational system — particularly through Northern Kentucky University’s College of Infomatics — that’s helping companies connect with people who know their way around a complicated piece of machinery or a computer.

“We’ve invested heavily in education and companies are working with us to help raise test standards,” says Thomas.

“There’s a skilled labor force here already for manufacturing, IT and healthcare, whatever. There’s a huge push across the state for education to get people ready for the jobs of tomorrow.”

Trending Upward

So what does the future hold? What will 2013 look like? Will the economic outlook be a repeat of 2011’s gut-wrenching skyrocketing unemployment, molasses slow growth and business uncertainty? Or is there hope that, as Annie might put it, the sun will come out tomorrow?

“The numbers we have show slow, but moderate growth,” says Harrah. “The good news is that they are trending upward, not downward.”

Finan is optimistic that 2013 can be bigger and better than 2012, which she describes as successful. “Our pipeline is vibrant with interested businesses looking at Northern Kentucky.”

And it will stay that way as long as Northern Kentucky continues to do the right things.

“If you talk to people outside the area,” she says, “we would get a very glowing endorsement for how we conduct business, to the houses people are able to live in, to the schools that are here. There are just so many positives about Northern Kentucky.”

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