FORT MITCHELL, Ky. – After a few years in Boston, Mass., Dixie High School alum and former Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson and his family are back in Northern Kentucky to make a go at a positive economic impact for the region he calls home.
The man who said he used to get back issues of The Kentucky Post mailed to him at college because it was a piece of home, apologized for a tardy entrance Tuesday morning, explaining to the roundtable of chamber folks and media that before he left his parents’ house--his temporary residence--his mom insisted on proudly taking a photo of her son ‘the president.'
On his first official day as the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce president, the Edgewood, Ky., native gave his take on CVG and its board, the riverfront development, Brent Spence tolls, and the toll that heroin is having on the community — while talking about his political future in Kentucky.
So what keeps the 42-year-old president up at night? Two daughters and what he calls the ‘budget battles.'
What’s his No. 1 priority when tackling his new regional position?
While donning a duck tie and touting a wicked Donald Duck impression, Grayson promised to do his best to build a better Northern Kentucky and a bridge, literally and figuratively, across the Ohio River.
“The river is not very wide,” Grayson said. “Northern Kentucky is the heart of Kentucky—we are Cincinnati and we are Kentucky.”
Q: What degrees do you possess and what are some of your career highlights that make you a good fit for this role?
- Harvard, AB 1994
- University of Kentucky, JD/MBA 1998
- Attorney with Greenebaum Doll & McDonald (1998-2001)
- Keating, Muething & Klekamp (2001-2003)
- Secretary of State, Commonwealth of Kentucky (2004-2011)
- Director of Institute of Politics, Harvard University (2011-14)
Q: What is the first thing you want to tackle as you hit the ground running?
A: I want to go around, listen to our members, listen to the community leaders, listen to the folks who maybe aren’t as engaged with the Chamber—find out what’s on their mind and how the Chamber can help them and help out the region.
I don’t know everything. I don’t know the entire story. I want to be able to fill in those gaps.
It’s a new day at the Chamber. That’s not to imply that the old day was a bad day, it’s just a new day. We’re going to have an open and assessable staff and membership and leadership and we’re going to be very engaged and trying to focus on the things that the Chamber does well: advocacy, leadership, workforce and networking [including digitally].
Q: How do you plan to bridge the gap between N.Ky. and Cincinnati?
A: Having begun my professional career as an attorney where I basically worked on the Cincinnati side of the river and lived in Kentucky was having that strong Northern Kentucky/Cincinnati connection. It’s very symbiotic. Metro Cincinnati and the Ohio side is only better when Northern Kentucky is better and growing—not just because the airport’s here, but we are in fact one region. And certainly Northern Kentucky cannot succeed if Cincinnati isn’t growing and thriving.
Whether it’s the GE announcement at The Banks, where I know, even the economic studies only looked at the impact on Ohio, we know there’s going to be a great impact for Kentucky—that’s going to be more people living in probably Covington and other areas of our community. So it is a big regional win.
Q: What’s your top priority?
A: Workforce… and economic development, everyone’s No. 1 concern is jobs. By workforce, it’s finding the right employees with the right skills at the right time to match the employer’s needs. Working with NKU, working with Gateway, Thomas More… and our k-12 system, so that we’re producing the right graduates who meet the needs of the employers. Finding that right match is a real challenge. One thing we know in this economy, education really matters and educational attainment matters.
Q: How will you tip the political scale with your background in an efforr to assist in the bridge’s development?
A: Nearly everyone I’ve talked to has an opinion about the [Brent Spence] bridge.
From others re: bridge: ‘We don’t tolls but we want it fixed.’ And ‘We’ve gotta' build this thing, it’s going to cost too much if we wait any longer.’
We know that tolling has got to be a piece of it. And to not believe that is to deny the reality of the funding need and the bridge need.
Fuel toll and tax on our time: We’re already paying a toll for this congestion. We are paying a toll and we are paying a tax. We need to turn it into an investment.
Tolling is how roads are built these days. It’ll be a challenge, a heavy lift. We’re going to have to embrace the challenge. It’s an investment in the whole state not just Northern Kentucky.
I’ve got pretty good relationships with people from all across the state, on both sides of the aisle. Everyone who’s either running for governor, likely to run for governor or is thinking about running for governor, I’ve got a positive working relationship with—same with legislative leaders.
I get the sense that the lobbying push isn’t right yet, because the public relations push needs to do a better job of succeeding. Not enough members of the public are telling their legislatures that it’s time. We need to convince the folks who are regularly commuting. That’s job one.
[We] need that grass roots support. We need to educate before you can debate… before it becomes too expensive and too dangerous.
This is not a Northern Kentucky problem. It’s a Kentucky problem. It’s a big deal. Avoiding the I-75 corridor will have a ripple effect on businesses moving into region.
Q: What will be the Chamber’s role in battling the heroin epidemic?
A: One of the workforce challenges we have. But it is one thing I need to learn more about. It’s something that has arisen since the time I’ve been gone. And what I don’t know is what are the Northern Kentucky uniquely characteristics of it?
As an organization that cares about the quality of life and strength of businesses, it has impacted both areas. There is a workforce challenge when your employees can’t get jobs, or some of your employees get hooked on drugs, are less productive. There’s a cost for all that. It is something that the Chamber should be engaged in… Chamber endorsed the heroin bill in the last session.
Q: Why did you decide to accept this position?
A: It was home… it is home. That’s always been important to me, no matter what I do personally, professionally. Being engaged in the community -- home is important.
One of the drivers of the timing and this is where I got lucky, with the timing that this position opened up when I was looking to come back… my older daughter is getting ready to start high school and I loved my job at Harvard and I was good at it.
We knew we wanted to get back.
Choosing the Chamber-
The mission of this place and the importance that it’s played in the past and I think how it can play in the future, bringing people together and identifying the top challenges, identifying the solutions and trying to get to work on getting those implemented.
The chamber is the one place that can brings businesses and individuals together to improve the community. The chance to lead that kind of organization professional is extraordinary—it’s pretty cool.
Q: What will you do for the riverfront development?
A: From my experience and travels as Secretary of State and most recently as Director of Harvard’s Institute of Politics, I have recognized the impact of a strong urban core on a regional economy. Our riverfront is one of Northern Kentucky’s most important assets. New initiatives like UpTech, Riverfront Commons and the Gateway Urban Campus, coupled with signature tourism destinations like the Newport Aquarium, Newport on the Levee and New Riff Distillery, are game-changers for the region. The Chamber values our partnership with urban communities and businesses and look forward to continuing their development.
Q: What are you thoughts on CVG fights and its board structure and related hubbub?
A: The industry as a whole has changed. There are fewer flights today than there were 10 years ago. They’re a lot more crowded. If you fly, you know this. The number of hubs has shrunk. That’s just the way the market’s evolved. I don’t think it’s fair to compare what we have now to what he had five years ago.
We are fortunate though that we still have more direct flights from our region than our surrounding regions. And we’ve seen some growth. Would love to get Jet Blue here—we would be a really good option for them.
The airport seems to have done a pretty good job at getting its cost under control. When you have lower costs it makes it easier for those kinds of airlines to come in—lowering the costs, being assessable, marketing and being smart about it.
Let’s focus on the good things that are happening. Let’s focus on cleaning up the board structure. With the new leadership… Bill [Robinson]’s been one of my mentors as an attorney and continues to be one of my mentors today—having him as the chair was a really smart pick.
What’s nice about an audit is you get a menu of items, ‘if you do these things, you will not get in trouble in the future.’ And so following the recommendations of the audit—so one thing as the Chamber, is to make sure that those recommendations, encourage those things get adopted.
[Cincinnati] should get more influence, I don’t think we change the governance. Kenton County owns the airport, that’s just the way it is. Having a few more Cincinnati people on there is a good thing in my view.
Q: What keeps you up at night?
A: As the region has become bigger and more prosperous, it’s become harder and harder to achieve some of the consensus that’s helped us to get that way. That sort of encompasses everything.
The workforce/economic development piece because so many things are… we need to improve state policies on tax laws to make the state more competitive.
I worry about the pension problem for the state of Kentucky. It’s going to squeeze, and continues to squeeze the budget and we’re still not contributing what we need to contribute. And I really worry about that. Every year the state’s going to have to put more and more money aside to pay for things that are not the direct delivery of services to its constituents—and that’s going to squeeze out education and it’s going to make it harder to get the right kind of tax structure in place.
And I have a 13-year-old daughter… that keeps me up at night.
Q: What do you foresee as your political future in Kentucky?
A: I want to do this job for at least five years. I think less than five, I wouldn’t be doing a good job… you need five years for good leadership. Ten is probably too long to be in this position.
But I wouldn’t mind running again some day.
If I did let any kind of interest in politics interfere with this job, I’d be terrible at it. The Chamber is non-partisan, we care about issues, we care about the region, and I’m going to work with everybody.
Northern Kentucky Voice: Your Voice, Your Story is a periodic and ongoing series on WCPO.com about the people of Northern Kentucky making a difference in their community. If you would like to tell your story, or know someone who should, email Jessica Noll at Jessica.Noll@wcpo.com .