Louisville, Ky. – In his first State of the City address, Mayor Greg Fischer (D) called for a new economic development vision for Louisville, saying the city is lagging behind competitor cities and needs a culture change.
"I don't want to come back here in three years and just say, 'We're still average!' That's not my goal," Fischer told the Downtown Rotary Club.
Saying peer cities like Indianapolis and Nashville have grown jobs over the last ten years, while Louisville has lost 25,000 jobs in that same time, the new mayor said his administration will undertake a wholesale review of economic development strategy.
"By no means, am I trying to denigrate the folks that have come before me," Fischer paused, "a lot of good work has been done, but we got a lot to do."
Fischer's warts and all briefing contrasts with former mayor Jerry Abramson's penchant to paint a rosy picture.
"My job is to take a look at it and take a look at the facts," Fischer said.
Fischer has said that he intends to run Louisville like a business. In the speech, he explained that a "good business" not only talks about what is going well, "but you see them openly talking about what's not going so well, as well so that we can put that on the table and work on those issues."
Fischer is proposing that Louisville and Lexington create a "super region" along I-64 modeled after the North Carolina's "research triangle" of cities and he set five economic goals:
- increase private capital and investment dollars
- boost entrepreneursism
- Create an Office of Innovation for city government
- Overhaul the Planning and Design department
- Encourage businesses to internationalize
Fischer's message? Louisville cannot afford to be complacent
"The status quo is not acceptable," Fischer said, "The status quo will not grow enough 21st Century jobs."
Has Louisville been too complacent in the past?
Influential Fischer backer Christy Brown paused. "I think, yes", Brown said.
"I love the fact that the mayor is calling on history to help us realize the potential of the past, that we can learn from the past in order to grow for tomorrow," Brown continued, "I think there are such huge opportunities that I do think at times we just haven't really realized them. I think the city is ready to explode in the most wonderful ways and I think the benchmarks are really really important."
Benchmarks were key to Fischer's assessment of the city. The new mayor explained that while previous administrations had "fantastic accomplishments," Louisville is progressing "only if you compare Louisville to Louisville, ourselves to ourselves."
"But how do we explain that the top eight of our competitor cities, including Indianapolis and Nashville, increased their jobs despite the economic downturn?" Fischer continued the assessment.
"We have moved from the bottom of our tier cities, 16 tire cities, to in the middle - the second tier. Now what you tell me is - That's not good enough - That's not good enough just to be in the middle. And that is not what my fellow citizens tell me. We have no desire to be labeled as 'average,'" Fischer said.
"In the long run," commented Rotarian and attorney Stanley Whetzel, "a town can need change, leadership change in order to do things differently."
On the streets of Louisville, a WHAS11 microphone found citizens yearning for change.
"I think we've been resistant to change," said Andy McKay, "a little less forward thinking and aggresive in our outlook and taking risk and adopting new ideas."
"We've been rather complacent," agreed John Sweeney, "and we haven't been real strong in the venture and private equity sides of things." Sweeney hopes Fischer's changes will encourage more business and a shift away from a large manufacturing oriented economy.
Fischer told the Rotary Club and its business leader members that it is critical that Louisville acts now.
"We need to up our game. We need to fire our competitive juices. We need a culture change and I need your help."
Facing a $20 million budget shortfall in the next fiscal year, an early gauge of the Fischer administration will be how it develops the city budget.
"With vigor, a positive attitude, using a team approach and with input from the citizens before the budget is written," Fischer said, then repeating, "before the budget is written."
"We're not used to that," replied Metro Council member Kelly Downard (R) afterword, "At the council, we're not used to being approached ahead of time, being asked our opinion, having our opinion valued and utiized in some cases, so this is going to be a great new partnership."
Downard is a long time critic of former mayor Jerry Abramson, whom he opposed in the 2006 mayoral election.
"This mayor tells the truth all the time," Downard said of Fischer in a not so subtle jab at Abramson, "I'm very pleased. He's consistent. He stood up today and said, 'I want your help.' Anybody who doesn't give it to him, gets what they deserve."
Downard says - make no mistake - there will be disagreements, but that the urgency Fischer is bringing to city challenges will win him patience from the Metro Council.
"If the reason is you make a mistake (is) because you tried to do the right thing, that's what I think this administation is doing, I'll be with him," Downard said.