A delegation of 75 Acadiana business and community leaders are spending three days in Lexington, Kentucky, to learn lessons from the region that they can apply back home.

The delegation got the lay of the land Monday, hearing how the Lexington area’s economy transformed from being primarily driven by agriculture and coal mining to having a host of key players, including manufacturing, health care and logistics.

Much of that was achieved through regional cooperation.

Gina Greathouse, executive vice president for Commerce Lexington, said in 2004 a host of organizations merged to provide a greater focus on business development. They work together to promote the entire eight-county market. Greathouse said that had to be done because the population of Fayette County, where Lexington is located, is 318,000. That’s not enough to get on the radar for national site selection firms.

“You have to check your ego at the door,” said Todd Denham, the economic development director for the city of Winchester and Clark County Industrial Development Authority. “Change is difficult and uncomfortable, but you have to work together,” he said during an orientation session, which was held in a cultural development center in downtown Lexington on what used to be a YWCA basketball court. 

One Acadiana, the economic development group that represents nine parishes, organized the trip. This is the second leadership exchange the organization has done, coming about 18 months after a visit to Charleston, South Carolina. Jason El Koubi, president and chief executive officer of One Acadiana, said he's pleased that every parish in the organization sent a representative on the trip — including several parish presidents. 

The eight counties that make up the Bluegrass Region around Lexington have a population of 647,000 — slightly smaller than the 693,000 people who live in Acadiana. But that area of Kentucky has seen 0.6 percent annual job growth from 2011 to 2016. During that same period the dramatic drop in oil prices has hurt Acadiana, causing employment to drop by 0.6 percent annually. Unemployment is 3.5 percent in Lexington; in Acadiana it is 7 percent. The per capita personal income is roughly the same in both areas: $39,000 in Acadiana; $40,000 in Lexington.

Bill Lear, a former chairman of Commerce Lexington and the current chair of the Kentucky Chamber, outlined the highlights of the local economy. Lexmark, the manufacturer of laser printers, has its U.S. headquarters and research and development operations in the city. Toyota’s largest manufacturing plant is 15 miles away from Lexington, where more than 10,000 employees build Camrys and SUVs. More than $1 billion has been spent on new investment at the University of Kentucky’s medical facilities. Amazon has a $1.5 billion distribution center located just over an hour away.

“The last 20 years, we’ve seen largely organic growth downtown,” Lear said. Groups from college students to millennials to baby boomers flock to the bars and restaurants in the city.

Follow Timothy Boone on Twitter, @TCB_TheAdvocate.