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December 12, 2008

WEB ONLY: Loosely connected thoughts on Louisville’s crisis of economy

In one of the better late-era episodes of “Seinfeld,” George Costanza, in a fit of pity, delivers a chair to the always-standing security guard at the Manhattan clothier owned by his wealthy soon-to-be uncle-in-law.

Meeting resistance, George tells the store manager he’s practically the owner’s nephew, that one day he’ll own the place, and on that day the two will have a problem if George is not allowed to deliver this chair. The manager cowers, George forgives him with a tone of righteous authority, and soon we’re treated to a shot of the Great Bald Hope carrying a finely crafted wooden piece triumphantly through the front door, convincing the security guard it’s OK to have a seat on duty.

Meanwhile, Kramer has become addicted to lattes, and napalms his crotch after he tucks one into his beltline in a covert movie theater operation. Naturally, he sues the company for making the latte too hot, and agrees to a settlement that offers him free lattes for life. Soon, the preeminent hipster is jabbering incoherently, stomping down the street in a latte-induced frenzy, while the clothier is robbed as the security guard naps in the chair. Yet another Costanza-Kramer plotline is revealed to be total farce.

Much like the characters in “Seinfeld,” our fair city is confronted with a postmodern crisis: Facing a $20 million revenue shortfall, the biggest in three decades, Mayor Abramson announced a series of dramatic cuts in services and programs to help cover some of the shortage. The cuts are harder to take for some because this administration has chosen to invest deeply in downtown-related capital projects with non-local companies. And while these investments most likely represent some version of a future our downtown might hope to have, that very idea is contingent upon our ability to continue operating, which, paradoxically, now appears to depend on the aforementioned series of rather dramatic budget cuts, not whether we continue big spending on this supposed future.

All this occurred to me a few Monday evenings ago, when I was watching that very “Seinfeld” rerun on TBS and ignoring the Monday Night Football preview of the bland Jaguars-Texans matchup (all I want for Christmas is flexible scheduling).

 

The effort to redevelop downtown is the result, in part, of popular culture, a mainstream effect that can be linked directly to “Seinfeld,” a show that went off the air a decade ago. The show — and others during the ’90s, like “Friends,” “Mad About You,” “Single Guy,” etc. — depicted urban living as both relatively safe and unpredictable in interesting ways, the latter contrasting the perceived value of suburban living as “frontier” or particularly insulated.

Soon, via an intriguing multiplier effect, mainstream America began to invest in the idea of the big city, even where it wasn’t so appropriate. Smaller cities like Louisville — or St. Louis, Kansas City, Nashville, Indianapolis, et al. — poured money into new developments downtown, forcing something that came to the bigger cities first by design.

But now, due in part to the dragging economy, the city is not in a position to fully nurture the natural growth of downtown with smaller, locally owned businesses. We are also beholden to one major developer — Cordish Cos. — that leases arguably the most key portions of land (for virtually no money) in this area and has no inherent interest in seeing Metro through this crisis, so far as the crisis does not directly harm the aforementioned supposed future. (Offered by the mayor’s office as rationale for the sweetheart deal: The company will build it because the company knows it can profit, not because it is required to build it.)

In the East Market District, a burgeoning east downtown arts scene that has grown somewhat organically and features a population of locally owned businesses, some of which have opened on city loans, locally owned businesses are closing. Jenicca’s wine bar and bistro has closed. Melillo’s, an Italian restaurant and coffeeshop, is closing at the end of the year. The group including Gill and Augusta Holland that bought Wayside Christian Mission has big plans for the buildings, but with credit markets still icy and an unmoved development economy, how much do we hope for and still be realistic? There are rumors that other closures on East Market are imminent. A block over on East Main Street, Zena’s has closed.

Rebecca Simpson, co-owner of Jenicca’s, remains optimistic about the area. She says that capital projects like the arena will help, despite a marked change in the aura of the area.

“The vibe is different now — it’s like someone knocked the wind out of us,” she wrote in a recent e-mail. “But I think it will pick back up.”

Locals like this are part of the infrastructure needed for downtown to flourish as so many other Louisville neighborhoods have.

 

It is most assuredly a case of bad timing, that Louisville Metro is poised to contribute so much taxpayer money to major capital projects like Center City and the downtown arena when the country is in a recession and local revenue is short $20 million, much of which could be covered by an immediate withdrawal from the former of those projects.

The cuts Abramson has instituted to cover the shortage are significant: Closing government for four days; implementing a hiring freeze; closing libraries and community centers one day a week; postponing smaller, more neighborhood-centric capital projects; trimming police and fire recruiting and classes; cutting agency budgets like Neighborhoods, which is losing 11.2 percent; closing Otter Creek Park for the next six months; delaying the fixing of roads during winter (fixing potholes will continue); and slashing grants to arts groups.

There are two essential questions here:

1)   Is all of this worth avoiding layoffs in government?

2)   Is all of this worth trudging ahead with Cordish and downtown development during a time of bad-to-worse? 

Abramson, like any elected official, wants to avoid the villain role that would accompany layoffs. But how many people will be adversely affected by these cuts? The government should provide services to its people before it provides them jobs. I called 911 last weekend, after witnessing a nasty auto accident, and got a busy signal for 15 minutes. So did all the others who’d stopped to help the man whose car had just flipped, and who (mercifully) was not injured. We waved down a passing cop and he explained that the board was flooded, as it were. This is not Mayberry but a city of more than half a million people. 911 should work, always and without interruption. That’s one of those “essentials” for a big city.

Further, what are we sacrificing to continue an inorganic downtown resurgence? And which is more essential: keeping your city moving forward or making certain it stays alive as it is? And are those two things inextricably linked?

It’s a postmodern dilemma worthy of “Seinfeld,” and you have to laugh to keep from crying.