July 6, 2011

From ‘Possibility City’ To ‘Super-Region’

Louisville and Lexington propose marriage as path to prosperity

In February, Democratic Mayor Greg Fischer joked that Louisville and Lexington were “dating,” eyeing each other as potential mates for an economic “super-region.” Last week came the promise ring, a loose commitment to a somewhat abstract concept.

The official news was announced at the Clinton Global Initiative America event in Chicago. Fischer and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, also a Democrat, along with the Brookings Institution, a Washington D.C.-based think-tank, will work on a regional economic development business plan for the next 18 months. The focus? Make Lex-ville a hub for high-tech auto manufacturing.

Brookings released a report this spring touting regional business planning. The theory being a region should look at itself as a business, find its niche, and run with it. In essence, they argue it isn’t productive for cities to compete against each other, chasing corporate headquarters with subsidies.

The report stresses American cities need to compete “globally,” and that it’s time to export, export, export (like China) while urging low-carbon innovation.

In Fischer’s words: “The world is rapidly changing. One undeniable trend is urbanization. And Louisville and Lexington will soon emerge as a new super-region — or mega-city.”

Urbanization is real, for better or worse. The 2010 census showed Kentucky’s population drifting toward urban areas.

In four years, more than 20 cities are expected to have a population of more than 10 million. By 2030, it’s estimated 60 percent of the world will live in cities. (Source: National Geographic.)

And by roughly 2140, Mega-City One is expected to straddle the entire eastern United States, from Atlanta to Canada, and will have a marvelously juiced Sylvester Stallone single-handedly wrestling lawlessness in a post-apocalyptic world. (Source: Judge Dredd Comic Books and mid-90s movie based on said comics.)

Yes, words like mega-city and urbanization can conjure dystopian, sci-fi images.

They certainly don’t sit well with Jackie Green, an independent candidate in the last mayoral election and a sustainable growth advocate.

“Our language is reflective of our thought. Louisville is not New York. We do not need to try and be New York, and we can be great,” Green says. “Louisville needs to be true to Louisville.”

He’s also not sold on the future of advanced auto manufacturing, given the Pentagon’s recent dire prediction of oil shortages within the next five years.

But Green and pro-super-regioners agree on one thing: Strengthening economic ties with Lexington doesn’t necessarily equate to I-64 being Houston-ized, lined with strip malls from here to the heavens. The city’s abandoned corners are hungry for an influx of businesses, residents and well-paying jobs.

Meanwhile, Louisville tends to clumsily tumble eastward. Some wonder if a potential super-region can or will re-engage the city’s core and benefit our community as a whole.

Fischer got the idea for a super-region last December. He was at a Brookings seminar where regional business pilot plans from around the United States were being presented. In part, this idea is a numbers game. Louisville would go from being marketed as a city of 1 million to a region with upwards of 2.5 million.

“The point is to make the pie bigger,” Fischer tells LEO. “When people think, ‘Where am I going to relocate my business?’ they can see a solid workforce.”

Fischer heard how the Seattle area and northeast Ohio were “twinning” up, pairing with neighboring cities and getting educational institutions, private businesses and local governments to invest in one specific sector of the economy. The Seattle area brands itself as the place where new software technologies and energy-efficient products can be tested and improved.

Northeast Ohio’s antiquated manufacturing economy (much of it auto related) is shifting toward global health and
green energy.

So what about our super-region? Right now, the thought is “advanced auto manufacturing.” It doesn’t sound quite as progressive, but Fischer points out that regions must identify strengths. With Ford, Toyota and some of their suppliers located here, that’s ours.

“If we’re trying to focus on jobs with clean energy, they (Seattle) are 10 years ahead of us.” Fischer says. “If they try to compete with us on automotive, we’re 20 years ahead of them.”

Bruce Katz is the founding director of Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program, the arm of Brookings working on the super-region project. He says the nascent initiative is all about creating much-needed middle-class jobs.

He envisions a model similar to one in Germany, where high schools and colleges partner to train a skilled workforce in technology and problem solving.

Katz also says Germany, specifically Munich, has managed to revive industry while maintaining a great quality of place, typically ranking high on livability indexes.

“There’s no reason you can’t have both,” Katz says. “You just have to be intentional about growth patterns.”

Smart growth has not been Louisville’s forte. According to the Greater Louisville Project’s 2011 Competitive City Report, most of the jobs in Jefferson County, 69 percent, are in the metro area, but it’s the eastern suburbs that have swelled.

The percentage of vacant homes, mostly bundled in the West End, jumped from 5 percent to 10 percent in the last half of the decade, largely due to increased poverty and foreclosures. It’s estimated that half of those living in the Portland and Russell neighborhoods are living in poverty.

Katz actually co-authored an opinion piece in 2005 addressing this hollowing out of the city’s core: “Troubling signs warn that a relatively cohesive region is beginning to decentralize to the east, especially cookie-cutter sprawl is gobbling up land, fueling the demand for services, and further undercutting the centrality of downtown and the West End.”

Katz also wrote that Louisville’s future lies in a more educated workforce, “not by wooing firms with tax breaks or building new stadiums.” (Jim Host, former state commerce secretary and chairman of the Arena Authority that made the Yum! Center a reality, is chairing the super region study.)

Carolyn Gatz, the founding director of the Greater Louisville Project, says balancing economic growth while strengthening the city’s core is “the trick of the 21st century.” And she believes it can happen here.

Still, the two cities cited as models by Fischer and Host include Dallas-Fort Worth and Raleigh-Durham — both struggle with sprawl. It’s important to note Lexington has an urban boundary, as to protect iconic rolling horse farms.

Fischer stresses that this initiative isn’t about physically connecting the two cities, adding that he’s committed to rebuilding Louisville’s core. In a February interview with the C-J, words weren’t chosen quite so carefully when discussing economic agendas of cities in the super-region.

“For Louisville, I don’t know so much in Lexington, we need to have infrastructure ready so when companies decide to locate here we can accommodate their needs quickly. So for instance, in the eastern part of the county, where we have our industrial centers or commerce centers, that the roads are in place, the sewers are in place … so when corporate headquarters or expansion wants to locate here … we can show them where they can be and have the building built for them in nine months and not say, ‘There’s a good cow field for you, a good green field, and we got to get this zoning passed and this infrastructure in place. So come back in two and a half years and we’ll have this ready for you.’ You know, that’s not the speed of business.”

It’s that kind of sentiment that concerns Joshua Poe. He’s an urban planner and housing advocate based in Southern Indiana. He’d like the super-region to take into account the agricultural economic opportunities sitting between Louisville and Lexington, perhaps by focusing on a robust local food economy.

Poe can’t help but find the irony in potentially growing the manufacturing base into rural areas, as other city initiatives have pushed for growing urban gardens in the West End.

“That seems like the height of backwardness,” Poe says.

He hopes the mayor stays true to his word and starts dissecting zoning laws that could make expanding industry in the city’s core difficult. If that doesn’t happen, Poe worries, “This notion of a super region is the latest scheme for suburban private developers to keep their dying show on the road.”

Bill Weyland’s reflections are more tempered. Weyland, arguably Louisville’s premier urban designer and developer, sees political muscle as a super-region’s greatest asset.

“Louisville’s needs and Lexington’s needs and Covington’s needs are all similar,” Weyland says. A prime example? Cities in Kentucky can’t leverage their own sales tax as a way to generate funds for urban development, outside of getting the legislature to approve a tax increment finance district. That, Weyland says, needs to change. He believes Fischer and Gray are “forward-thinking” and “creative” people who can make Louisville competitive with other midsize cities.

But Weyland admits a few people have approached him and questioned whether this quest to compete globally will result in a stretched out Louisville, all with the hopes of creating a larger, more noticeable dot on the map.