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A Restoring Prosperity Case Study: Louisville Kentucky

Louisville/Jefferson County is the principal city of America’s 42nd largest metropolitan area, a 13-county, bi-state region with a 2006 population estimated at 1.2 million. It is the largest city by far in Kentucky, but it is neither Kentucky’s capital nor its center of political power.

The consolidated city, authorized by voter referendum in 2000 and implemented in 2003, is home to 701,500 residents within its 399 square miles, with a population density of 4,124.8 per square mile.² It is either the nation’s 16th or its 26th largest incorporated place, depending on whether the residents of smaller municipalities within its borders, who are eligible to vote in its elections, are counted (as local officials desire and U.S. Census Bureau officials resist). The remainder of the metropolitan statistical area (MSA) population is split between four Indiana counties (241,193) and eight Kentucky counties (279,523). Although several of those counties are growing rapidly, the new Louisville metro area remains the MSA's central hub, with 57 percent of the population and almost 70 percent of the job base.

Centrally located on the southern banks of the Ohio River, amid an agriculturally productive, mineral rich, and energy producing region, Louisville is commonly described as the northernmost city of the American South. Closer to Toronto than to New Orleans, and even slightly closer to Chicago than to Atlanta, it remains within a day’s drive of two-thirds of the American population living east of the Rocky Mountains.

This location has been the dominant influence on Louisville’s history as a regional center of trade, commerce and manufacture. The city, now the all-points international hub of United Parcel Service (UPS), consistently ranks among the nation’s top logistics centers. Its manufacturing sector, though much diminished, still ranks among the strongest in the Southeast. The many cultural assets developed during the city’s reign as a regional economic center rank it highly in various measures of quality of life and “best places.”

Despite these strengths, Louisville’s competitiveness and regional prominence declined during much of the last half of the 20th Century, and precipitously so during the economic upheavals of the 1970s and ‘80s. Not only did it lose tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs and many of its historic businesses to deindustrialization and corporate consolidation, it also confronted significant barriers to entry into the growing knowledge-based economy because of its poorly-educated workforce, lack of R&D capacity, and risk-averse business culture.

In response, Louisville began a turbulent, two-decade process of civic and economic renewal, during which it succeeded both in restoring growth in its traditional areas of strength, most notably from the large impact of the UPS hub, and in laying groundwork for 21st century competitiveness, most notably by substantially ramping up university-based research and entrepreneurship supports. Doing so required it to overhaul nearly every aspect of its outmoded economic development strategies, civic relationships, and habits of mind, creating a new culture of collaboration.

Each of the three major partners in economic development radically transformed themselves and their relationships with one another. The often-paralyzing city-suburban divide of local governance yielded to consolidation. The business community reconstituted itself as a credible champion of broad-based regional progress, and it joined with the public sector to create a new chamber of commerce that is the region’s full-service, public-private economic development agency recognized as among the best in the nation. The Commonwealth of Kentucky embraced sweeping education reforms, including major support for expanded research at the University of Louisville, and a “New Economy” agenda emphasizing the commercialization of research-generated knowledge. Creative public-private partnerships have become the norm, propelling, for instance, the dramatic resurgence of downtown.

The initial successes of all these efforts have been encouraging, but not yet sufficient for the transformation to innovation-based prosperity that is the goal. This report details those successes, and the leadership, partnerships, and strategies that helped create them. It begins by describing Louisville’s history and development and the factors that made its economy grow and thrive. It then explains why the city faltered during the latter part of the 20th century and how it has begun to reverse course. In doing so, the study offers important lessons for other cities that are striving to compete in a very new economic era. 

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SERIES: Restoring Prosperity | Number 3

SERIES: First Suburbs | Number 41