Julie Nelson Harris joins SPEDA as Vice President of Operations & Communications

Communications consultant takes on larger role leading all communications and marketing efforts, assisting in overall management and operations

SOMERSET, KENTUCKY (January 24, 2024) – The Somerset-Pulaski Economic Development Authority (SPEDA) will soon welcome a new executive who is no stranger to the organization.

Julie Nelson Harris, who has served as communications director for the City of Somerset and as a communications consultant to SPEDA for the last four years, will begin her new role at SPEDA as vice president of operations and communications Feb. 1. In this position, she will continue leading communications and marketing efforts while also assisting SPEDA President and CEO Chris Girdler and the board of directors in managing the daily operations of the organization.

SPEDA has been a two-person organization since its founding, Girdler said, but the community’s growth and the increase in services, programming and responsibilities at SPEDA have created the need to bring on a third full-time employee. Harris was a perfect fit given her previous experience, Girdler said.

“Julie Harris is one of the most well-rounded and hard-working individuals I know, and I can say without a moment’s hesitation the best communications professional in the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” Girdler said. “While she has not been a full-time employee of SPEDA until now, she has been an invaluable partner through her consulting efforts and has played a large role in the overall success of Somerset-Pulaski County and the explosive growth we have experienced during the last five years. I cannot put into words how excited I am to have Julie coming on board with SPEDA full time and being able to put her managerial and organizational skills to work alongside her mastery of communications. This moment in time will mark another incredible transition for SPEDA as well as the entire Lake Cumberland region as a whole.”

Harris has spent the last two decades dedicated to telling the stories of her community and her state through journalism, public relations and marketing. She calls Somerset home, her family having moved here from eastern Kentucky when she was 8 years old. She is a Somerset High School graduate and earned her bachelor’s degree in print editorial journalism with a concentration in political science from the University of Kentucky. 

Upon earning her degree, Harris spent 10 years working for community newspapers across Kentucky, achieving her dream of becoming a publisher by the age of 26 at The Oldham Era in La Grange. During her tenure, The Oldham Era was named the best large weekly newspaper in the state four years in a row by the Kentucky Press Association. 

Her love of journalism and the written word, however, developed at a much younger age, by her father’s side in the newsroom he owned and operated in Somerset during her childhood. Harris worked every job she could at The Pulaski Week during that time — from stuffing newspapers to writing photo captions to preparing the daily deposit — and she used those experiences, as well as valuable lessons learned at the dinner table, as her guide as she started her career.

While working for newspapers, Harris developed a passion for graphic design, a skill she taught herself while putting out each week’s issue. After developing that skill on a freelance basis for several clients across the state, she transitioned into marketing and communications, spending the next 10 years as a designer, copywriter and eventually creative director for two Kentucky marketing firms — KSD in Somerset and P&P Branding and Web Design in Mt. Sterling. 

It was in her role as creative director for P&P that Harris first began working with SPEDA. In 2019, she was part of the team that developed SPEDA’s inaugural brand and website, and was responsible for crafting the tagline “Making business about people” to help communicate the organization’s unique and innovative approach to economic development.

That approach, and the historic progress being made in short order by the city’s new administration, made leaving the private sector to be a part of it an easy decision, Harris said.

“When I left Somerset to go to college, I didn’t look back,” Harris said. “I didn’t have faith that there would ever be anything for me here professionally, or that Somerset could offer my family the quality of life we wanted long-term. I am so grateful to say I was wrong — grateful that people began believing this community could be more and do more and started saying yes to change. That leadership inspired SPEDA’s brand, its mission and its vision, and inspired me to want to be a part of the renaissance happening here. When Chris and Mayor Keck approached me with the opportunity to do so as communications director for the City of Somerset and as a consultant for SPEDA, I jumped at the chance. The last four years have been some of the most rewarding of my career and I will forever be grateful for their investment in me.”

As the city’s communications director, Harris led all communications and marketing efforts for city government, See Somerset Tourism and The Virginia. She was responsible for raising awareness about the city’s initiatives, which received coverage in a number of state and national media outlets. She facilitated the redesign or launch of websites for city government, tourism, SomerSplash Waterpark and The Virginia, and served as a member of the city’s events team, which helps execute three free downtown festivals annually. She was also a member of the project team appointed to oversee the renovation, revitalization and reopening of The Virginia.

Harris views her new role at SPEDA as a continuation of her efforts during the last four years to elevate Somerset and Pulaski County’s profile across the state and nation. She said she is eager to deep-dive into economic development and help SPEDA’s team continue executing quality-of-life initiatives at a high level, initiatives that have made Somerset feel like home again for her and her family. 

“Investment in the arts and entertainment, in downtown revitalization, in making Somerset a destination — all of these things are key to making a community viable in addition to building its industrial base,” Harris said. “I am lucky to have been a part of this movement from the beginning, and I look forward to continuing to see it grow.”

Somerset Mayor Alan Keck said while the city will miss Harris’s impact, he is thrilled for SPEDA and the community.

“I can’t say enough good things about Julie Harris,” Keck said. “Her contributions to the city have been evident in the statewide and national press we’ve received. Her impact, however, is much bigger than meets the eye. Julie is the ultimate team player and helps wherever asked or just by taking initiative to contribute. She will be sorely missed by the city and by me personally. Her assistance and leadership has allowed me to be a much better mayor. SPEDA in many ways is an extension of city and county government, the glue and conduit for progress. I expect Julie to hit the ground running and make a huge, immediate impact in her new role. She will undoubtedly take SPEDA to new heights, just as she helped do for the City of Somerset.”

Harris has received multiple Kentucky Press Association, Society of Professional Journalists and Landmark Community Newspaper awards for news writing, editorial writing, feature writing and page design. She recently received two awards of excellence from the Kentucky Association of Government Communicators for her efforts to promote The Virginia’s renovation, and led communications efforts for SPEDA that received national recognition with the Special Judges’ Award for Comprehensive Communications Effort from the Southern Economic Development Council. She was honored in September along with four other members of SPEDA’s team as a Stand Up Rural America trailblazer. 

She is also a recipient of the Max Heath Gold Star Award for Everyday Excellence in Community Journalism, an award created in honor of the late Heath’s practice of praising good work with a gold star sticker and encouraging note in purple ink. In 2010, she was one of three employees of the Sentinel-Echo in London to receive the Ida Lee Willis Memorial Foundation Historic Preservation Award for coverage of efforts to save London’s historic Pennington House from demolition. And she was a panelist at Campbellsville University’s 17th annual Media Appreciation Luncheon in 2022 to discuss the state of journalism.

Harris’s love of community and the arts fuel her service efforts. She is the president and media director of the Master Musicians Festival, southeastern Kentucky’s premier two-day outdoor music event, and is a graduate of Leadership Lake Cumberland and Leadership Kentucky. Through her own firm, Triple Edge Creative, Harris will continue serving as a marketing consultant to Lake Cumberland Tourism.

Harris and her husband, Dwain, live in Somerset and have three children — Matthew, a senior at Somerset High School; and twins John Parker and Piper, sixth graders at Northern Middle School.