Louisville, Ky. (WHAS) In the first mayoral debate since the May 18 primaries, candidates Hal Heiner and Greg Fischer both painted the election as a critical decision for Louisville, with jobs the top priority.
Fischer calling it a "pivotal, turning point in Louisville history," while Heiner suggested it is a do or die moment for Metro Louisville.
"We're a great city but I'll tell you that greatness will slip away if we do not grow jobs in Louisville Kentucky," Heiner said.
About 400 real estate and building industry professionals packed the Olmsted on Frankfort Avenue for the debate, sponsored by the Commercial Council of the Home Builders Association of Louisville. Both candidates called for an easier planning and zoning process. Both called for Louisville to get more of its tax dollars returned from Frankfort. The men were asked to compare how the culture of their administrations would be different than the outgoing "mayor for life" Jerry Abramson.
"Anybody who gives a quarter century of his life or her life to the city I think we should say thank you and look to the future," said fellow Democrat Greg Fischer, who shares many of Abramson's key supporters, "and that's certainly what I would be doing. I come from a different place than he does. I bring a fresh new outside perspective to the mayor's office based on my career of growing jobs and developing people and customer satisfaction."
Yet, Republican mayoral candidate Hal Heiner said Fischer would merely offer a "continuation" of the Abramson administration. Heiner called for a major culture change away from "the arrogant governing style" of Abramson.
"Flip that pyramid completely over," Heiner said, "where we have employee driven efforts at efficiency."
Fischer repeatedly drew on his experience in his family's businesses and called for a "culture in the city that is a 'can do' culture, so Louisville can be known as one of the great entrepenurial cities in the world."
Both candidates stressed that the city needs to be viewed as county-wide, and not just Downtown, or the pre-merger city limits.
"Why don't we use TIF's (tax increment financing) in the suburbs?" Fischer asked, "We should use all of our economic development tools to thoughtfuly locate businesses and residences in our community."
Echoing the tension between the pre-merger City of Louisville and county residents dissatisfied with merger, Heiner said "the next administration needs to make sure that those dollars aren't concentrated in a five or six block area. We need to invest in our entire city."
Independent candidate Jackie Green was not invited to debate and says he would have offered a balance to urban sprawl.
"That growth pattern has left us with neighborhoods, existing neighborhoods that are in decline," Green said, "These are hard choices we have to make and they don't want to wrestle with them."
Saying he was met by a police officer when he entered the Olmsted for the debate, Green said he agreed not to take the stage and was allowed to attend the event as a private citizen. He mocked Heiner and Fischer's call for "open and inclusive government."
"This was not a debate. Both of those guys are joined at the hip," Green said.
Both Fischer and Heiner called for improvements to the city's planning and zoning process to make it easier for developers.
"Everyone says they are for improving the process," Heiner said, "People have been saying they are for it for 20 years and nothing has changed. And I'll tell you I know it. I know how good it is in other cities and it will be changed in the first year of this administration."
"We don't need to recreate the wheel," Fischer countered, "The issue for me is cycle time, so that when you have a project you minimize the complications. Decisions can be made as quickly as possible."
"Louisville is certainly a leader when it comes to red tape in the planning and zoning process," Heiner said, eliciting a chuckle from the Home Builders crowd.
"Builder after builder, developer after developer, investor after investor, after they go through our process say they hope to never again invest in Jefferson County," Heiner charged, saying that Louisville needs to emulate the success of rival regional cities such as Nashville and Indianapolis which grew jobs in the past decade while Louisville lost jobs.
"What I see in those other cities are mayors that are passionately engaged. going to companies, trying to tie them to companies that are here in Louisville," Heiner said.
"Nashville and Indianapolis have been merged 30 or 40 years," Fischer said, "They are also state capitals. Fine, that's what they are. Let's focus on who we are and what are our strengths."
"We have all the advantages," Heiner said "and we often make the short list, but the difference (between) making the final four to finally being selected is everything. In other cities, they have a passion and an aggresiveness."
"So a 180 change of customer focus and proactive problem solving," Fischer suggested, "The mayor has to lead with that kind of focus."
While both candidates said they are in favor of expanded gambling, they disagreed on how to decide the issue and location.
"There's a few spots in town or a spot in town that's obviously reay to go with this, but we want to ensure that there's a process where everybody can have a shot at expanded gaming," Fischer said.
"Louisville needs to be at the table in any kind of formula and if it is built it needs to go to Churchill Downs," Heiner countered.
Heiner said the people need to vote on a constitutional amendment to allow expanded gambling rather than the General Assembly deciding, which Heiner said would be followed by litigation and confusion.
In interviews after the debate, each candidate explained why he is better prepared to lead.
"I know that I'm ready to lead day one," Heiner said, "I know this government."
Does that mean Fischer is not ready?
"It seems to me it would be difficult for anybody that hasn't even attended their first metro council meeting, that hasn't been involved in setting up this government, it seems to me it would be difficult," Heiner responded.
"Obviously, Hal is an insider," Fischer said, "part of the government structure right now that he's criticizing. I'm an outsider. I bring a fresh perspective."