October 31, 2007 | By: Carol Lea Spence

TON, Ky., (Oct. 31, 2007) – Along the ridges and rivers of eastern Kentucky, winding scenic byways thread their way past farms that beckon visitors into their gift shops or onto their hayrides, inns that offer lodging to the nature lover and artists who create from the wellspring of their mountain heritage. Pooling this natural wealth during a fall workshop at the Laurel Gorge Cultural Heritage Center were coaches from the Kentucky Entrepreneurial Coaches Institute.

A leadership program, KECI was established in 2004 by the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service and funded by the Kentucky Agricultural Development Board. The institute concentrated in its first three years on developing entrepreneurial coaches in 19 tobacco-dependent counties in northeastern Kentucky. In 2008, it will expand its reach into 22 counties in the south central region of the state.

KECI’s objective is to promote diversification of the economies in these counties by developing coaching skills among community leaders wishing to encourage the development of local entrepreneurs. These trained volunteers strive to build a strong entrepreneurial culture and infrastructure that will stimulate new business startups and small business expansion, especially among the region’s tobacco farmers. 

Ron Hustedde, professor of community and leadership development in the UK College of Agriculture, is the director of KECI. He contends that believing in a region’s people will bring out their very best, for themselves and for their region.

“We can create new wealth in the region -- new hope. I believe the institute’s graduates are honoring people’s dreams for starting new business. They are successful because they focus on local assets rather than on problems.”

The recent workshop featured entrepreneurs representing a variety of enterprises from surrounding counties. Gwenda Adkins, family and consumer sciences extension agent in Elliott County, was one of the planners of the roundtable event. She explained that the gathering was 
a way for people who wanted to start or expand a business or had a product they wanted to market to talk to people who had been through the process.

“Sometimes people just have that one question, ‘How do I get started? What do I do?’ To come in and be able to talk to someone who did that will give them that little bit of knowledge or maybe that little bit of encouragement they need to go forward,” she said.

Fellow KECI graduate Kay Boggs was not only on the planning committee, but she also participated as an entrepreneur, lending her encouragement and expertise to those who dropped by her table. She and her husband Lafe own the Laurel Gorge Inn, the only overnight accommodations in Elliott County. They also raise white-tailed deer and Nigerian dwarf goats, alternative livestock that are particularly suited to small steep-sided tracts of land. She praises the network that KECI and its coaches helped to establish in areas that might be perceived as remote.

“The networking is wonderful. There’s somebody who knows something about everything. And this meeting is a good opportunity (for people to ask questions). Because if someone comes and asks me something, if I don’t know, there’s someone in our group that does know,” she said. “What it takes is for everybody to work together, because you can’t do it all by yourself.”

Kim and Jason Smith benefited from the Boggs’ experience. They moved to Kentucky from Ohio to start their own alternative livestock business. The couple depends on the Boggs’ knowledge to help them over the rough patches inherent in a new endeavor.

“Lafe and Kay both have been a great help and a tremendous resource for us,” Kim said. “Starting any new business, you don’t know where to start. And once you get started, you don’t know where to go from there. They’ve been there for us throughout the whole thing, in order to help us be successful.”

That success is crucial to the growth of a region suffering from the loss of tobacco income and the lack of industry. 

“The bulk of new jobs and wealth in the state will be created through small business,” Hustedde said. “We can no longer rely exclusively on traditional industrial recruitment as our sole economic development strategy.”

Workshop planners included people from a wide variety of endeavors. The gathering comprised a farmer who sells his beef through direct marketing methods, agribusiness owners, a proprietor of a bed-and-breakfast, an artist who creates jewelry, owners of a home décor business and a wood carver, among others. 

Adkins said that not only did entrepreneurial novices gain something from the event, but so did the established business owners. She pointed out that the owner of the Gambill Mansion, a bed-and-breakfast in Blaine, met the owners of Alley Farms, an agritourism business in the same county.

“They are about three miles apart, give or take, so they can now market each other,” she said. “Alley Farms also met two entrepreneurs of the tobacco buyout so they now have more products to sell. An artist from Elliott County came to talk with the jeweler about marketing and found two outlets for her works of art. A young man who wants to get into biofuels talked at length to Harvey Mitchell, from the Center for Rural Development and the Small Business Development Center, as well as a KECI coach.

“In eastern Kentucky I don’t think that we have realized all the niches that we have,” Adkins said. “And sometimes it takes making people realize that they have a niche – that they can do something special, that they can take this idea and go forward with it and turn it into a profit making venture. Hopefully, today people will see that’s a possibility.”


Gwenda Adkins, 606-738-6400, Ron Hustedde, 859-257-3186