The Downtown ‘Action Plan’ Lacks Vision

In the latest installment of the series, “Louisville Leaders Plan City’s Future,” the results are the same: Louisville has no idea what it wants to be, much less how it’s going to get there. But we sure do talk a good game. 

The Louisville Downtown Revitalization Team released its “Action Plan” last week, and someone needs to explain to me what just happened. Was this SCALA 2.0? Did Vision Louisville and Plan 2040 get together and spawn a new leadership group? 

After reading the plan’s recommendations and hearing the abundance of platitudes underscoring the team’s conclusions, the only clear conclusion is that Louisville lacks a vision. This document should serve as a challenge to all mayoral candidates: What is your vision for the city in 10, 20, 30 years? Because I sure couldn’t tell you. 

So, what’s wrong with the Revitalization plan?

Nothing within the plan is specifically objectionable or “wrong.” However, the details largely don’t match the soaring rhetoric surrounding the plan. 

When Mayor Greg Fischer announced the formation of the group during his State of the City address in January, he said, “We’re putting together a downtown revitalization team to identify and prioritize actions to speed the recovery of downtown once we’re out of this pandemic.” Seems fairly clear and targeted.

The team produced short-term (30 days), mid-term (60 to 90 days) and long-term (120+ days) goals. The goals are a combination of things that are already being done — or should be done — by the city, as well as other public and private organizations. 

Take short-term goals, for example, which include promoting downtown events and businesses, repairing sidewalks, replacing streetlamps and adding wastebaskets. Critical projects, sure, but they are basic city government operations. Why weren’t they already being done as part of normal city operations? 

Another short-term goal is to better coordinate and sequence roadwork on major thoroughfares. Again… that’s great! But this isn’t a new problem since the pandemic. Where was this a decade ago? 

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Upon the release of the plan, Fischer said, “The Downtown Revitalization Team’s work isn’t about bringing downtown back to what it was; it’s about making it better by ensuring that our downtown is vibrant, clean, safe, equitable and inclusive, so that everyone feels like an essential part of, and is welcome in, downtown.” 

Sounds great… but what’s with the lofty rhetoric? Why is Fischer upselling this? It shouldn’t take 60 local leaders to explain to city officials what the job of local government is. 

Then, some of the suggestions include events and projects that have already been done, or planned, for years. For instance, “Nulu Fest (June 25)” is considered a mid-term recommendation in the plan. NuLu Fest is awesome. We’ve promoted it in years past and are excited the NuLu Business Association is bringing it back this year. Likewise, Waterfront Park Phase IV development. This is a tremendous project for the city, but it was announced as far back as 2018. 

Including these projects and events, along with others, as recommendations make it feel as though Fischer and city officials are trying to take credit for work that others have been doing for years. At the very least, it muddles the message about this “Action Plan.” Are these supposed to be new ideas? Or are we focusing on specific things that need to be promoted?  

I don’t mean to be cynical about this effort; I just don’t understand what it became. 

Is this a pep rally or a going-out-of-business sale? It has the feeling of Kevin Bacon’s character at the end of “Animal House,” screaming amid a riot, “All is well!”

And there’s nothing wrong with the group chosen to lead this effort — all are stakeholders with personal and/or professional interests in a thriving downtown. The Revitalization Team’s efforts might be suffering from bad messaging or poorly-defined expectations, but it’s not lacking in passion, intelligence, experience or creative bandwidth. They don’t lack courage, either; after all, they took on post-pandemic economic recovery, racial justice and improving homelessness — all through the lens of diversity, equity and inclusion — in just a few months.

It just feels as though Louisville’s been here before: We’ve seen the flashy group name, watched a quasi-public engagement process and, ultimately, been given a roadmap of things the city could do. We’ve heard the great pitches, key phrases and buzzwords-du jour. What we’ve yet to see is a vision for what the city needs to be great. 

Maybe the next mayor can provide that great vision.