SOMERSET, Ky. — An effort to revitalize the state's beleaguered houseboat industry is set to begin with construction of the prototype of a product for land instead of lake.
The idea is to build energy-efficient modular homes on the same factory lines that normally produce luxury houseboats.
The goal is to boost jobs at the Lake Cumberland-area factories and at material suppliers while creating a model of relatively low-cost, highly energy-efficient houses.
Supporters see a number of potential markets for the houses, including lower-income people, people who want compact vacation homes and empty-nesters looking to downsize.
There might even be a market to use the homes for military housing or to replace dwellings destroyed in disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.
"There's just all kinds of opportunities," said Bruce Chesnut, a partner in Stardust Cruisers.
The Wayne County houseboat factory has participated in the development of the idea and will build the first two prototypes.
Those will be set up in Monticello and Whitley County, which each received a $125,000 federal grant to finance the prototypes, said Stephen Taylor, development director for Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp.
The project also received a $1 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers announced last year. Work on the first model house should begin within weeks, officials said.
Supporters hope demand will grow to the point that work will spread to other factories, but Stardust and others would continue making houseboats.
The push for the project came from Jerry Rickett, president and chief executive officer of Kentucky Highlands, which works to boost economic development in a 22-county area of southeastern Kentucky.
The cluster of houseboat makers around Lake Cumberland was once a sizable economic force. Factories in Wayne, Pulaski, Clinton, Russell and Adair counties employed an estimated 1,000 people at one point — many of them skilled workers such as carpenters and electricians — to make floating houses that sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The recession hit houseboat makers hard, however, forcing several out of business.
There are now fewer than 200 workers in the remaining lake-area factories, said Josh Ayoroa, a graduate student in the University of Kentucky College of Design who is manager of the houseboats-to-houses project.
Read more of this story at Kentucky.com