In Kentucky, a co-op-led development strategy that uses cutting-edge technology and good old-fashioned people skills has helped bring thousands of jobs and billions in investment to the state’s rural areas.

The initiative, spearheaded by two economic development experts at East Kentucky Power Cooperative, uses drone footage, demographic data and sophisticated mapping technology to create detailed visual layouts of key parts of co-op territories. Kentucky co-ops use those layouts to entice businesses looking for locations for new facilities.

EKPC found that the work, begun in 2015, has helped bring $5 billion in new investments and 10,000 new jobs to Kentucky’s rural communities and placed the 87 co-op counties served by EKPC’s owner-member co-ops high on the lists of corporate site-selection teams.

“We’re relevant now, more so than in the past,” said Mike Williams, president and CEO of Blue Grass Energy Cooperative in Nicholasville.

The key players in the initiative are Rodney Hitch and Brad Thomas, who promote economic development on behalf of Winchester-based EKPC and its 16 member co-ops. The duo and their team of representatives from each member co-op work with one vendor, Qk4, to turn aerial drone footage, digital topography and detailed engineering data into videos and 3D profiles of 28 industrial and business sites on co-op lines. Developers can find those on an online hub at

“We have developed a digital surface model of the entire industrial complex—with elevation data for the roads, ground and existing developed lots—to be used for preliminary design concepts,” said Thomas, EKPC’s associate manager of economic development. “Prospective developers are telling us that’s saving them upwards of $100,000 because they’re not having to send engineering crews out there.”

Another vendor, Interapt, is helping the team build maps that show details of territory boundaries and industrial and business park locations and pull in community demographic data, tax, utility cost and quality-of-life information.

Hitch and Thomas recently earned two prestigious awards for their team’s work. Consultant Connect, an international trade group, named the pair among the top 50 economic developers in North America. And Kentucky’s Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives made this year’s list of top 20 U.S. utilities in economic development by Site Selection magazine, an honor that also went to Hoosier Energy in Bloomington, Indiana, and the 20 co-ops making up the South Carolina Power Team.

“Electric cooperatives’ top priority remains providing affordable, reliable electricity for the homes, factories, offices, stores and the other members we serve,” said Hitch, EKPC’s economic development manager. “But we are doing much more. We are helping to grow local economies that provide jobs, tax revenues and healthy businesses, all vital to a thriving community.”

Blue Grass EC’s Williams said the initiative helped them convince a Japanese steel parts manufacturer to open a third facility in Richmond Industrial Park, a 187-acre property on co-op lines.

He said he’s met with more developers about the park since the program began than in the past 10 years combined.

“It goes back to relationships, being at the table, being price competitive and having technology, especially the drone flights, which helped us market our sites more so than in the past,” Williams said.

Hitch and Thomas agree that the relationships they and their team have built over the years with public and private stakeholders have been the key to their success.

“Each of our 16 owners has a person assigned to economic development as part of their duties,” said Hitch. “We have an excellent team that never tells us no and stands ready 24/7 to help us with whatever the project needs to make economic development happen.”

Listen to an Along Those Lines podcast episode on rural economic development: