The LEO Interview
Mayor Jerry Abramson has an ambitious outlook for the future of Louisville.
By 2015, Abramson — a self-proclaimed optimist — predicts construction will be under way on two new bridges spanning the Ohio River. By next year, he expects work to resume on the stalled Museum Plaza skyscraper, a project that’s been on hold since the economy tanked in 2008. The mayor also believes the stagnant downtown housing market will pick back up, with prospective buyers eventually showing a renewed interest in urban condominiums that, as of now, remain largely vacant.
Rather than seek a final term as mayor to continue working toward these lofty goals, Abramson has his sights set on Frankfort, running for lieutenant governor on Gov. Steve Beshear’s ticket in 2011. This marks the end of an era in Louisville, where Abramson — aka “Mayor for Life” — has spent two decades leading local government.
For the fourth straight year, Abramson sat down with LEO Weekly for an in-depth interview. In addition to talking about the future, the mayor sheds light on some of the trickier issues his administration has faced in recent years, like doing business with the Cordish Cos., developer of Fourth Street Live, chipping away at a massive budget deficit, and supporting an embattled city employee with a reputation for misconduct.
LEO: During your recent state of the city address, you described your vision for Louisville in 2015. Why did you choose to run for lieutenant governor, as opposed to seeking a final term as mayor, which would have given you the opportunity to further work toward those goals?
Jerry Abramson: I’ve had 21 years of just wonderful experience at the helm of my community, and we’ve had so many successes. We’ve worked together with so many outstanding people and organizations. You know, I was literally preparing to run for a sixth term when Gov. Beshear called. He has been a friend of mine for 30 years. He was very supportive of me four years ago when I considered running for governor. He was the first person that I called when I decided not to. I said it just didn’t fit. Our son at the time was a 10th grader. He was playing football in high school, he was running track, he was singing in the chorus. As a parent, I wanted to continue to work the concession stands and do the kinds of things parents do to support their children. The timing just wasn’t right, and so my wife and I decided we weren’t going to run for governor at that time.
Then here came Gov. Beshear calling and saying, ‘Let’s talk about you being lieutenant governor with me.’ I chuckled at first because if you look back over the last 15, 16 years, the lieutenant governor has not played a major role in anything in Kentucky. There is no prescribed job other than to await the sickness of or death of the governor. So when he called and said, ‘I’d like you to think about running with me as lieutenant governor,’ I chucked and I think my first response was, ‘I’m not ready to retire.’
Then he began to remind me of the Bert Combs/Wilson Wyatt era. Bert Combs came out of Eastern Kentucky. Wilson Wyatt was the former mayor of Louisville. They ran together and created a team at that time that worked really as a 1 and 1A entry, which is a horse term. What that meant back then was Lt. Gov. Wyatt handled economic development. Gov. Beshear said, ‘You’ve done great things throughout the community for job creation and attraction of investment. You can work with cities and counties to focus on more efficient ways of running local government, how to be more collaborative…’ In addition, he said, ‘You and I could make decisions together as a team.’
In this case we have two people who have known each other for 30 years. It’s more than a political bond. It’s a friendship. It’s a trust. And I’m really excited about taking the experiences I’ve had and the successes and learning from some of the mistakes to be able to go out throughout the commonwealth and see if I can assist in adding value to the communities and the quality of life in Kentucky.
LEO: At this point are there any specific goals you hope to accomplish if elected lieutenant governor?
JA: The governor and I have talked about whether there is a position to take. Do I want to be the secretary of economic development? Do I want to be the secretary of the cabinet? Or do I want to be in a position where I can literally work in economic development, work with our Washington office on projects for Kentucky, work with the counties and the cities under the local government department to work on inefficiencies? … To tell you the truth, I think I’m more interested in taking the economic development leadership role, as well as, as well as, as well as, which would not only give me the opportunity to help the governor, but help my home state in a more broad brush and exciting way.
LEO: This question is perhaps a bit premature, but: Do you see a future in politics beyond lieutenant governor?
JA: I really haven’t thought about it at all. I told the governor I was good for a four-year commitment if we get the chance. After that, there are no plans.
LEO: Last month, at the request of President Obama, you hosted a small-business roundtable to discuss economic recovery.
JA: I did, right around this table in fact. Interestingly enough, several of the ideas we sent up from the 19 people around this table made it into his state of the union…
LEO: How do you think small-business owners in Louisville are faring presently, in what is hopefully the final stage of a recession?
JA: I hope we’re at the tail end. I think what I heard from them is they have concerns about the lack of certainty as they look into their crystal ball for the next six months to a year. Uncertainty in terms of what a change in health care would mean to their business. Would it cost them more, or would they save money and be able to have more funds to invest or to ultimately hire? They were looking for certainty. They were looking for tax benefits to take additional risks. One of the ideas that came up was in answer to the question, ‘What are we going to do with all the kids coming out of college?’ The resulting recommendation was to create a tax credit for internships…
LEO: In 2009, the city faced a $29.6 million budget deficit, which was worse than projected. How did your administration manage this fiscal crisis?
JA: It happens because occupation taxes are down because people aren’t working. It happens because corporate net profit taxes are down because people aren’t buying.
We first went through — back in ’08 — and looked budget by budget to see what we could do to decrease expenditures internally. You look at travel, you look at purchases, you look at leaving positions open longer. That’s sort of the garden-variety first cut you make, not to have a significant effect on the customers you serve or the personnel working for us. Then you get to the point where the red ink continues to mount and you have to make more aggressive moves. That’s where we closed the community centers on Mondays. That’s where we closed the libraries on Sundays. That’s where we closed the firehouse built when Ulysses S. Grant was president, but was within I think less than a mile of four other firehouses, and we took all those men and women stationed there and put them in other firehouses, thereby decreasing overtime elsewhere. That’s when you decide to sweep the downtown streets three nights a week instead of five. That’s when you decide to sweep the main corridors going out of town — Preston and Dixie and Bardstown Road and Taylorsville Road — twice a year instead of four times a year. You begin to work through cuts that literally save you dollars.
The final step — the step that was the least comfortable — was having to lay people off. First we asked our public sector unions if they would take a freeze on their salaries — they had been getting 2 and 3 percent (raises) over the years. In 2008, the non-union folks here in city government took no raise whatsoever. My top-35 staff people took a 10 percent cut during a six-month period, and then a follow-up 5 percent cut. I asked the unions if they would go one year without taking their raise, which would have given me sufficient funds to not have to lay anyone off. They chose to turn me down. As a result, we unfortunately had to lay off about 128 people, which means 128 families lose their health insurance, etc. It was tough, but in answer to your question, that’s sort of the process we went through to balance the budget.
LEO: How do you see the city faring financially in the coming year?
JA: We are just about ready to get the figures for the mid-year review. We built a budget that started July 1 assuming less revenue than the year before. That’s’ the first time we’ve done that. It looks like it’s going to be even worse.
In early November, we met with our directors to talk about the need to tighten up. We reviewed their budgets and began to look at services. In city government, you always divide up services into the ones we’ve got to do, want to do, and wish we could do. We discarded the ‘wish we could dos’ back in 2008. And now we’re getting less and less of the ‘want to dos’ and getting back to the core services that, if we don’t provide them, they’re not going to be provided: corrections, police, the health department checking restaurants, preparing the H1N1 vaccine program that we rolled out, the fire department, EMS. We have now gone back in every department and given each one a figure, saying you’re going to have to help us again.
We really don’t have a fixed figure. Will we be an additional $8 million short, will it be an additional $10 million, will it be an additional $15 million You can’t know for sure after one quarter. We’ll certainly have a clearer picture at the mid-term, which is where we are now. We hope to have our figures in the next week …
LEO: You recently stated — again during your state of the city — that the “odds are good” that construction of the Ohio River Bridges Project will be under way by 2015.
JA: If it’s not, shame on all of us.
LEO: How good are those odds really, and, at this point, what obstacles remain?
JA: The bi-state authority is meeting in the next couple of weeks. I think you will see both states are committed to making it work this time. You’ve lived here on and off all your life; you know we’ve been talking about these bridges for about 30 years. We have never been closer to pulling the trigger to get construction started. I think this will be the calendar year when a financing package will be not only on the table, but will be signed off on by all those who need to sign off on it. I met recently in Washington with the secretary of the (U.S.) Department of Transportation, Sec. (Ray) LaHood. He’s focused on our project and what we’re doing — very clearly focused on it. It meets the test of a nationally significant public works project.
If this is the year when we can get the financing in place, then in my judgment there’s no reason why — the drawings are ready, the acquisition of the land is taken care of — there’s no reason construction can’t be under way in five years.
LEO: What are your thoughts on the fate of Museum Plaza? Are you equally as optimistic?
JA: I will say that before the end of this calendar year, a financing plan will be in place for Museum Plaza and construction will resume next year. That’s my gut based on everything that’s been going on.
With what’s happening in Washington in terms of stimulus and in terms of their laser beam on job creation … when you’re talking about a project that would create 2,000 jobs or more, there are now mechanisms in the private and public sector that, when taken together, could get this financing package done and those jobs created.
LEO: For the better part of the past decade, your administration has focused on downtown development. Is the redevelopment of downtown progressing as you had hoped?
JA: It did until somewhere around 2008 when the economy collapsed. In fact, up until that point in time, the geographic area where the most residential construction permits were being asked for was downtown, as well as Fern Creek. As a result, housing was coming online from price points from incredibly expensive to reasonable levels for young people. Lots of empty nesters were leaving their four-bedroom homes and getting options on condominiums downtown. Now, unfortunately, those people can’t sell their homes to finish the deal.
I’m disappointed with where we are today compared to a year and a half ago, but I understand the financial crisis created the difficulties that have occurred here. And let me also say, having been in a meeting with mayors just the other day that the same problems are happening in other cities throughout the country.
LEO: Are you concerned that the demand for downtown housing might not bounce back to levels previously projected?
JA: I’m an optimist, so I think when funding is available for folks to buy homes, as the empty nesters are able to sell their homes, I think you’re going to see the demand for condos expand. As we attract more and more young professionals into this city, I think you’re going to see young singles and couples interested in the expansion of apartments available downtown. Some of them are already ready to lease or buy tomorrow, so I think it will continue to grow.
Now it may not ever get back — well I don’t want to say ever — it may not get back quickly to the pace that we had in late 2007, early 2008. We were rocking and rolling. But I do believe there will be a gradual development that will create opportunities both for those looking for reasonably priced apartments and those looking for substantial condos as they are able to sell their homes.
LEO: How do you feel about where we stand with commercial development downtown?
JA: I am disappointed that we have so little retail available in the downtown. The arrangement we made with Cordish for the expansion of Fourth Street Live is that a minimum of 40 percent retail will go into the new location (known now as Center City). In fact, we’re working with a major retailer right now who feels like the economy is coming back and they’re looking at downtown cities again. We’re working with them and with the Cordish folks on an opportunity that would be very special. If we could do it and assuming it’s successful, we could use it to show other retailers that downtown retail is back.
And so we’re continuing to work through it. But as of right now, we’re disappointed.
LEO: Speaking of Cordish: How do you respond to critics who say this administration has given too much in exchange for what Cordish has brought to the city?
JA: I would first give them the list of mayors that have called me asking what I could do to get Cordish to come out to their city to look at opportunities to re-energize their downtowns. They are the downtown investment, development, entertainment venue organization in this country. They were batting about 15 for 15 or 16 for 16, before the economy collapsed. They have been successful in every project. They are very tough businessmen and women, but they give you a quality product. And they have the strength — because of the number of downtowns where they have developments — to be able to bring in venues and retailers that otherwise might, not have looked at your community. And when a situation doesn’t work out, like for example the Lucky Strike (bowling alley), which was a concept out of California… Cordish had the financial wherewithal to be able to bring significant money to the table and develop their own brand of an entertainment venue. Had that not been available, that first floor — the largest block of space on Fourth Street Live — would have been boarded up for months and months and who knows how long. It could have been — under the broken window theory — when one goes, others would then go. They also had the financial wherewithal to bring the Improv in on their own — they didn’t ask the community for any financial support. They brought Ri Ra (Irish Pub) in on their own — they didn’t ask the community for any financial support.
When Lucky Strike went under and pulled out, the question was how quickly could they get that space open so as not to have a negative effect on the rest of the entertainment venue. We helped them with that. What happened was, the dollars that we helped them with were out of an ordinance by the former Board of Alderman that was exclusively set aside to be used for forgivable loans in the downtown…
Our economic development director, Bruce Traughber, made an offer of ($950,000) to be able to be given to Cordish for them to develop the Lucky Strike space. They brought probably three, four, five times that amount of money into the space, and as a result we got it turned around quickly and it did not have a disastrous effect on the surrounding area. That money was used as the former legislative body instructed us to use it — as a forgivable loan for five years. We’ve used that type of loan for an Italian pizza restaurant downtown. We have used them for several other smaller businesses — smaller amounts of money. This was a large amount of money, comparatively speaking, for a major, major project…
So, that’s what we’ve done. Some of the council members who wish me personally less than well have decided to take that as an issue because they weren’t on the Board of Alderman when those monies were set aside to be used exclusively in the downtown and to be used as a forgivable loan for entertainment, restaurant venues. They are able to go on television and look at the camera and say if those dollars had not been used at that entertainment venue, we could have used them for police or for roads. Well, that’s not true.
LEO: How would you describe your working relationship with Metro Council? Do you think it’s become more adversarial in recent years?
JA: You know, I would say that 99 percent of the initiatives I have proposed to the council they have joined with me. Most of those are very non-controversial. Some of those, like the smoking ban, were controversial. But by the time we get through it, by the time we discuss it, by the time we interact, I’ve been very fortunate that they have joined with me to bring some significant changes to this community over the years.
I think there’s always a tension between the executive branch and the legislative branch, whether it’s in Washington, whether it’s in Frankfort, or whether it’s in local government. But I think if you look back statistically on the initiatives and the legislation that we have sent over for passage — again 95 percent of it, 98 percent of it is non-controversial — you’d find that generally we’ve been successful in working out arrangements.
LEO: One potentially controversial issue that could be coming down the pike soon is a recommendation by the Board of Health to ban the use of trans fats in local restaurants. What are your thoughts on such a ban?
JA: The council asked the Board of Health to do a study and there’s a draft study floating around. Shortly there’ll be a final study. If you read the literature around the country these days there is a scientific basis for concern about eating a significant amount of trans fat — eating products with a significant amount of trans fat. Cities like New York and Boston, and states like California have already moved to ban trans fats in the cooking of products and baking goods. Many of the restaurant chains, like KFC, have made that change accordingly. The question is: If you want a robust debate about the pros and cons, which I would be in favor of, a significant portion of our community must understand the trans fat issue so that they can then discuss it with their council members and their council members can then vote. My gut says that most people don’t understand a good trans fat versus a bad trans fat, if there is good and bad. There is trans fat in most everything I think. Artificial trans fats are what we are concerned about. Do people drive by Krispy Kreme and not stop there because the donuts are fried in oil that has trans fat, or do they drive by and not stop because of the calories? I suspect that it’s the calories right now. To be able to really get a robust discussion, people have to understand what a trans fat is, what products have trans fat in them, and what trans fat does to you…
As we go forward, we need to spend some significant time educating the community so that the debate can begin. You set a time of a year or two and you go through the discussions. You might even begin to look at a voluntary approach, which could include restaurants placing designations on their menus saying this product has low trans fat. There are communities doing those kinds of things. Everybody is looking at it. So we want to make sure our citizenry understands the goods and the bads. I think we have an enormous amount of education to do before banning it.
LEO: Was there an education campaign before the city enacted the smoking ban in 2006?
JA: There was an education campaign, but here’s the difference: The education campaign we did was about secondhand smoke. We know that if you smoke, everybody agreed there was a direct correlation between you as a smoker and all of the pulmonary problems you might ultimately have, including cancer, as a result of your smoking. The one question most people couldn’t answer: If you’re smoking and I’m sitting here, what effect does it have on me? We spent a lot of time sharing the science of secondhand smoke with the community and the council. Ultimately, the ban was passed.
In the case of trans fats, you eating trans fats doesn’t have an effect on me personally. Although, an argument can be made that you eating trans fats could impact me if it causes a heart attack and you can’t afford medical treatment when you go to the ER. I ultimately end up playing a role because my insurance rates go up because I’m covering you for the heart attack you had, if there is a correlation…
LEO: Do you think that at some point it might be appropriate to adopt a trans fat ban in Louisville?
JA: I think with the proper education. If this study says that with a ban on trans fat you are going to decrease the number of heart attacks in your community by 1,000, there’s a savings on that. There’s also a savings not only on the lives of people, but on health care costs…
There has to be an effect on the life of the person who has decided not to eat artificial trans fats when an individual next to them decides to eat artificial trans fats. Today, most of our citizens couldn’t define artificial trans fat, they couldn’t tell you what it’s in. I would bet you 15-20 percent of businesses couldn’t tell you whether what they’re cooking with has trans fat in it. So there’s a lot of education that needs to occur. Then, let the debate begin over the pros and the cons and we’ll make a decision. At this point, California has done that, New York City has done that, Boston has done that, and a few other small cities. In most cities — like Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Nashville, St. Louis — everybody is looking at it, trying to understand and trying to educate their constituents.
LEO: During a press conference last fall announcing the resignation of Metro Animal Services Director Gilles Meloche…
JA: It’s Gilles (pronounced zheels).
LEO: Really? I thought the ‘s’ was silent.
JA: No, it’s Gilles.
LEO: Ah-ha. Well, you referred to him as a change agent…
JA: No question.
LEO: Do you think any positive impact he might have had on the agency outweighs the numerous allegations of misconduct and mismanagement?
JA: Let me start by saying it all depends on how you define positive effect. If you had been out at that facility to see what it was like when city and county government merged, and you went out there today and compared the technology, compared the cleanliness, compared the upgrades, compared the number of animal control officers now involved, compared the number of adoptions, which just skyrocketed, by tenfold, twentyfold, thirtyfold… If you would look at his idea to create a mobile spay and neutering facility that we call the S.P.O.T. Mobile… Then there’s the soon-to-open new adoption center over on Newburg Road, which was his idea. If you put all that together, what he did as the manager of the department, then I would say he was very successful. I would say that the change agent I hired truly changed the quality of animal services in this community in a positive way.
Now, when you bring about change you upset people. And he certainly did that, because lots of folks in the community who had been involved with animals in the past were quite happy with the way things were…
Now, did he have drawbacks — I think his French/Quebec accent gave him great difficulty in communicating with anybody, with citizens, with council. I think communication was a significant problem for him in terms of clearly and comfortably expressing himself. He had a way about him that left people cold and left people with the feeling that he was arrogant. In fact, it just was a different culture and an inability to articulate his positions that I think confused and that I think made people very uncomfortable.
Did he have difficulties? Yes he did. Was he a change agent? You bet he was. Where was his weakness in being able to engage the community in a more positive way? I think it was his inability to communicate. He did what he needed to do. He moved us into the 21st century, and then he moved on.
LEO: OK, I hate to get overly sentimental here, but given this is our last sit-down with you as mayor I wanted to ask you a couple questions looking back. First, what is it you’re going to miss most about being mayor of Louisville?
JA: I think I’ll miss the reason why I ran, which was to be involved in every significant decision that has both a positive and negative effect on my hometown. I enjoy public policy. I enjoy the debate. I enjoy the discussion. I enjoy the issues, and I think I’ll miss being in that kind of leadership role. I hope that a year hence I’ll be back in it on a much broader scale for cities and counties throughout the entire commonwealth.
LEO: What do you see as your biggest accomplishments and, on the flipside, your failures as mayor?
JA: I think most people will point to things they can touch. I think they’ll point to the airport expansion. I think they’ll point to the waterfront. I think they’ll point to the baseball park. I think they’ll point to bikeways and the city parks and, by the end of this year, they’ll point to the arena. However, I really believe that what I brought to this community was a passion for excellence and a belief that we can compete with anybody — an optimism that the glass is half full. When I ran for office in ’85 that was not the case in this community. We were down on ourselves. We didn’t believe we could compete with anyone. We simply saw the glass half empty. I think now people have the mindset and the feeling inside them that this community can compete. We can attract jobs. We can create quality of life. We can develop our education system. We can expand our businesses. We can do whatever we want to do if we put our mind to it… That’s very different than ’85. I think that I played a role in changing that mindset.
And then failure: You have to go way back to the one that sticks in my craw. Way back in the late ‘80s, I had tried to create a garbage-to-steam facility in this community that would have not allowed any landfill anywhere to be able to control our costs. I closed down the old incinerator two years before EPA was going to require it so that I could create a crisis where people would say, ‘Oh my god, we’re not burning any more, the only thing we have left is landfills.’ Well, the city doesn’t own a landfill. They are all privately owned. So now all of the sudden if they say it costs thousands of dollars for every garbage truck that comes in, where are you gonna take it? So I tried to develop a regional approach where, right next to BF Goodrich in Rubbertown, they were going to build this facility. They would take our garbage and the garbage from across the region. They would burn it, and BF Goodrich would buy the steam. They ended up building it in North Carolina. They built it. It worked. It solved their garbage problem forever. I never could get this community to understand the importance of and need for that type of facility. We lost that debate with the Board of Alderman at that time.
Pretty boring failure, huh?
LEO: Finally, any words of wisdom for your successor?
JA: I get asked a lot by folks, ‘What should we be looking for in our next mayor? What are the traits, what are the characteristics we should look for to differentiate among the men and women running?’ I frame it up this way: You have got to have a passion for this community, you have got to be a people person, and you’ve got to have a willingness to listen, because in my job, it’s 24/7. Whether I’m at Kroger, whether I’m in the steam room at the Y, whether I’m jogging through the park, or whether I’m riding my bike through the park on a nice Saturday afternoon, there are people who come by at all those places with an idea or a thought or a complaint. If you don’t like people, if you don’t have a love for this community and a passion for this job, then you need to do something else. So I would say to the person who takes my position: Be a good listener, get qualified people around you — hopefully people who are smarter than you are — to help guide you, and have a love for this community and a passion that creates excitement and energy for the future.