Kentucky City Enjoys Booming Economy Amid Pandemic As Rest Of Country Reels
Much of the country is facing a long, painful recovery from the coronavirus recession. But some communities are getting a head start.
Owensboro, Ky., has already recovered most of the jobs it lost this spring, even as the rest of the country is experiencing a painfully slow improvement in employment.
Owensboro, which sits along the Ohio River in northwestern Kentucky, suffered along with the rest of the nation when the pandemic hit. Unemployment in the metro area soared to 14.9% in April — slightly higher than the national average.
Within two months, though, Owensboro's jobless rate had dropped to just 4.2% — slightly lower than it was in January. The rate inched up in July, though at 5.4% it remained well below the national average of 10.2% that month.
The city owes its speedy recovery to a combination of luck, hard work and community spirit.
Owensboro is lucky to have big employers that make things people depend on during the pandemic, like Kimberly Clark toilet paper, Ragu spaghetti sauce and Fireball Cinnamon Whisky.
"In the state of Kentucky, the spirits business was designated as essential," says Matt Maimone, chief operating officer at Sazerac, which owns the Glenmore Distillery in Owensboro that produces Fireball whisky and other spirits.
Bars and restaurants are not buying as much liquor these days, but the distillery's 400-plus employees are producing plenty of drinks for home consumption. They also turned some of their grain alcohol into hand sanitizer.
"Not only have we continued to operate, but we're actually hiring," Maimone says.
"We definitely had employers that were creative and very committed to bringing their workforce back as soon as they could," says Brittaney Johnson, president of the Greater Owensboro Economic Development Corporation.
Ironically, one of the big casualties of the pandemic was Owensboro's hospital network, which lost two-thirds of its income during the spring when elective surgeries were halted in preparation for a wave of COVID-19 patients that never materialized.
Owensboro Health President Greg Strahan made the decision not to furlough any of his 4,300 employees, though. It's not easy to recruit doctors and nurses to a small city in largely rural part of the country, and Strahan worried if he let people go, they might not come back.
"We can't afford to furlough people," Strahan says. "We can't afford to lay them off."
Once surgeries resumed in May, the hospital's team was ready and they quickly made up much of the lost revenue.
Owensboro has not been spared by the coronavirus. The surrounding county has logged more than 1,000 cases.
But most big employers have found ways to keep operating safely.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union pushed a local ham company hard for more social distancing and protective equipment. The union is also trying to win a restoration of the 10% hazard pay that the company's employees were receiving until the end of May.
"They go to work every single day so that we have food to put on the table for American families," says Caitlin Blair, a spokeswoman for UFCW Local 227. "They deserve to be appreciated, supported, protected and paid."
Owensboro is also home to a mortgage processing arm of U.S. Bank, one of the country's largest. Thanks to strong demand for housing and rock-bottom interest rates, the mortgage business is humming during the pandemic. About three-quarters of the bank's employees in Owensboro are still working from home.
That's a challenge for parents now that virtual school is starting up again. The local chamber of commerce is trying to help: It is working to establish off-campus learning centers, where kids can get school meals and working parents can get a break.
"If you're working full time, even if you're from home, you can't stop and be an instructional aide for your child and be an effective employee," says Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Candance Castlen Brake. "You can, but it's going to be extremely challenging."
Despite its challenges, Owensboro has come closer to a "V-shaped" recovery than just about any city in the country.
But it's still not out of the woods, as shown by the uptick in unemployment in July.
Tourism continues to suffer in Owensboro, as elsewhere. The city's Romp Festival, which usually draws 25,000 people to support the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum, had to be canceled in June.
"I don't think any of us can predict what's going to happen," Blake says. "Other than the fact that we're going to have to stick together and get through it."
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