Louisville businessman Tyler Allen — co-founder of the grassroots 8664 group and a wild card mayoral candidate — recently sat down with LEO to talk about mayoral power, the upcoming primary battle and the big idea behind his campaign. A portion of that conversation ran in this week’s “Jerry’s kids;” here’s the full interview:
LEO: Does the mayor of louisville, as an office, wield too much power in the current system of Metro government?
Tyler Allen: In theory, when we formed the laws in Frankfort that governed moving into merger it clearly was the talk that we wanted a strong mayor… When we voted for merger everybody knew we were going to get a strong chief of the city. With regard to its powers, I cannot say whether or not it is unreasonable. I think what most of us see right now is just the way the powers that the mayor has have been used…The only thing we can judge by right now is the fact that Metro Council is maturing and could at any time on a lot of things we talk about easily exert its legislative authority.
LEO: Should the Metro Council take a more assertive role?
TA: I would like to see the council take a more assertive role earlier in the process… One of the problems in the community here is the degree to which the leadership goes out and tries to articulate a vision of where we’re going and then works with the citizens to bring people together to understand and influence that vision … the things we complain about today are at the end of the process. A question was asked about The Cordish Cos. and the Sports & Social Club, mainly how they spent the money and whether we should audit that process; well of course we should know exactly how the taxpayers’ money was spent. The frustration with that was the whole process by which we got to that point was not transparent.
LEO: What are some transparency initiatives that you are willing to support as mayor to make Metro government more open and accessible?
TA: Philosophically … we describe a vision for where we’re going to go. We engage on that subject. We work toward a plan and the plan isn’t finding out about it after the fact, and after it’s done then asking for the council to say yes or no… Use the arena conversation — we weren’t likely to have that because we put it in the hands of an unelected commission from the get go. By definition, it’s going to be very difficult. Remember all the battles over open records? It’s a recipe for not having transparency. By the way, we just saw it with the tolling authority (and) we’re handing that to an unelected commission. We pay our elected officials to deal with those issues so that we as citizens can go back and ask them why they made decisions.
LEO: What have been your thoughts on the deals Mayor Jerry Abramson has made with The Cordish Cos., particularly the forgivable loan (to redevelop a club at Fourth Street Live) and Center City?
TA: I actually like Fourth Street Live very much. When Dave Armstrong worked with Cordish to bring that, it was part of a plan. It was described as opening back up Fourth Street and that’s exactly what that did. In the late 1990s they clearly were one of the preeminent developers of these urban entertainment districts that actually do attract people from all over the region. It was very exciting. What I thought would happen next was the city would continue to be very proactive about where do we go from here. Well we went six years before we went from there to somewhere else. We sort of lost track of the plan. I thought we’d continue down Fourth Street, which is our historic corridor… Once you enliven one block as a city you proactively say we need to go to the next. Cordish was headed that way. They had an option on the Jewish Hospital building. They tried to get an option on the old Stewart’s building. My frustration is we were working down the course to a plan and we sort of stopped.
LEO: How do local businesses and developers play a role?
TA: I remember describing it to friends: Fourth Street is great and that is a very specific product…but the idea I thought was, that’s great, they do that, but the next block over the city will continue development and hopefully with the incredible business culture we’ll find music venues and restaurants and all that to create a synergy. I really thought that was going to happen next. We get a little further along and sitting at a point where what looked like the plan doesn’t look like it at all. The arena changes location and Fourth Street Live moves to Second Street. That’s what I mean by articulating a plan and sharing it with the population. Say why it’s a good idea. If they don’t like it they will let you know. You lay it out to give people some buy-in on the process. We’re dealing with the after effects, not the beginning affects.
LEO: What did you learn from the 8664 movement that you’ll take into the mayoral campaign?
TA: Most certainly that people are hungry. Citizens are hungry for a big vision for the future of this city. Something they can rally behind and then get on board with. The term has been used a couple of times — “civic enragement.” Well it’s a response to after affects. We need to be about as a community having a conversation but also articulating an ambitious vision so we can get excited and move. There’s no question I come away form 8664 with a belief that there’s a pinup demand for that in this community.
LEO: As mayor, would you implement 8664?
TA: The first thing that I would do — which is a first component of 8664 and just so happens to be hugely popular among the citizens of the whole region — would be building an East End bridge as quickly as possible. There has been no issue in this community where the interest of the few has stymied the opportunity of the many quite like that. When we get that bridge off the ground that will open up the possibility for the next conversation … clearly we know where my values lie on that.
LEO: Critics say you’re a long-shot candidate known for a single issue, a one trick pony. How do you respond to that assessment?
TA: I believe there’s a very big issue in this race and it is that we need a mayor who has the vision and passion to move us forward as a whole community. In that regard, I do believe I have that vision and that passion. Anybody who has heard me talk about 8664 knows how much broader my vision is with regards to things in the community … What’s exciting is the fact that all these issues (are connected). It is stunning how connected they all are.
LEO: Do you expect a contentious primary campaign?
TA: I hope not. I hope we have a spirited discussion about where we want to go as a community. I don’t know why that would need to be contentious. It should be perfectly civil and about dialogue and conversation. I would hope that’s the direction it goes. In any political circumstance, you can step on people’s toes because not everyone agrees, but I fully expect that we’re going to cover a lot of ground. One of the things I offer up in this election and one of the reasons I got into it was I fully intend to make sure we keep talking a broad range of things and challenging the ways they’ve been done.
LEO: How do you plan to contrast your candidacy?
TA: Very much the intent would be to run as a change agent … My involvement over the past years in co-founding a very large grassroots movement means I’ve spent a lot of time interacting with the system in Frankfort and in Louisville … and it’s an incredible organism, a city. Quite frankly, no one can claim to be prepared for (being mayor) in this community. There’s so much to learn on the job. It’s a very distinct role, but it is living and breathing because it is predicated and based upon citizens and neighborhoods. It’s not a business. This is not about being CEO of a business. It is about being mayor of a community.
LEO: Earlier this year the health department unveiled its Healthy Corner Store Initiative to combat area food deserts. What are your ideas to address the lack of healthy food choices in parts of the city?
TA: That is an integrated issue … over time the fundamental reinvigoration of under-resourced neighborhoods has to be the underpinning of it all. If you don’t have a vibrant neighborhood it is very difficult to sustain even the mechanism to distribute things. The food desert question is related to the bigger question of what other deficiencies and other things in the community don’t live up to what we expect everybody to have. Quite frankly, connectivity and transportation play a huge role in that. Some places are food deserts because they’re also isolated. In west Louisville, for instance, connectivity for the rest of the county is about the automobile. If that’s less then they’re less likely to get healthier food. That’s up here but it’s a symptom of everything that’s wrong.
LEO: Would you be supportive of a “buy local” ordinance that would require Metro government to establish a local food economy system from Kentucky farmers to urban markets?
TA: I don’t know a whole lot about the details, but it fits directly in with the mechanism of distribution. If we value that connectivity between production in our own community and consumers in our own community then we very much should be looking to enhance that. It doesn’t mean to be over and above what happens in the private sector. It means trying to work on the distribution problem.
LEO: What is this big idea for the city and vision that will get people energized during the campaign?
TA: I have gone around for several years, engaged with people and articulated a big development vision … I’ve talked about that and will continue to talk about that catalytic sort of change. Going into this campaign one of the big ideas I will be about is, I’ve got a lot of energy and passion, but really this isn’t about my vision. Ultimately it’s about everyone else’s.
LEO: But you’ve encountered resistance to your big idea in the past. People aren’t always open to change. Is Louisville as progressive or freethinking as you hope?
You can talk about your plans for XYZ, but fundamentally it’s about unleashing the talents of people here … more publicly than most perhaps I have tried to push for a conversation about an idea and found myself running into stiff opposition … The frustration was the attack on the conversation itself, and that has a deadening impact on a community because what do people look for when they come into a city — an open exchange of ideas … We talk about entrepreneurship in this community purely in a business sense, but in reality an entrepreneur is not limited to business or making money. It’s people with ideas who pursue and develop them in a broader marketplace. When you try to stifle a conversation about something political or different, that has a bad impact on business. We’ve got to be an open, dynamic and encouraging place.