So Louisville has pulled off the most significant municipal consolidation in 30 years.
For some, no doubt, the impulse is to declare victory and sit back.
And that would be understandable, given that Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson and his team have in just two years now merged the city of Louisville and Jefferson County, combined their two police departments while improving service, and in the process touched off a national wave of governance reform zeal.
Satisfaction is absolutely in order.
And yet what has most impressed us, as authors of the 2003 Brookings Institution report, “Beyond Merger: A Competitive Vision for the Regional City of Louisville,” has been the focus of many Louisvillians on the next step—a greater prize located far “beyond merger.”
Highlighted in a new report by the Greater Louisville Project (GLP), this long-range vision of “raising the city’s aspirations” is extraordinary among cities and absolutely essential, we believe.
In our report, we too looked “beyond merger.” We too looked forward to a moment when the region—the merger completed—would make its bid to emerge as one of “the most distinctive, equitable and competitive of American cities.”
Well, now that time has come. Two years after creation of the new metro government, it’s time to remember that Louisville’s merger has never been solely about combining the public works departments or even changing the emergency radio systems.
Instead, uniting the city of Louisville and Jefferson County has always been much more about Louisvillians’ deep desire to marshal their best energies to reinvent their region as a truly great city.
And so, while Louisville Metro represents the culmination of a nearly 50-year saga, the real work, in our opinion, is only now beginning.
What does this mean? It means that, far from resting on their laurels, Louisvillians must now recommit themselves to a longer-term agenda of community betterment. It also means that the region must hold itself to a continuous evaluation of its progress through a series of benchmarkings, such as those now inaugurated by the GLP report.
But in any event, we believe Louisvillians must throw their region’s current momentum into making progress on at least three major fronts, each of which we stressed in our original report.
Educate, educate, educate
First, we’ve become even more convinced in the past two-plus years that the region must renew its efforts to grow a high-road economy, and that the way to do that is by assembling an educated workforce—not by wooing firms with tax breaks or building new stadiums.
The challenge here is stark. Skilled regions rise in the knowledge economy; less-skilled regions decline. And so Louisville must raise the educational attainment and skills of its workforce.
To be sure, progress has been made, since we first raised this challenge, as the region quickly embraced the call to lift educational achievement by devising the new Every1Reads collaboration of the region’s civic leadership and the Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS).
Yet much more needs to be done. As JCPS data shows, K-12 students’ test scores are improving, but math scores are rising more slowly, and wide gaps still exist between high- and low-achieving schools and outcomes for various racial groups. Moreover, increases in the percentages of local students who obtained a high-school diploma and went on to garner a bachelor’s degree cannot mask continued malaise. Enrollment in higher education institutions continues to fluctuate, too many freshmen are assigned to remedial courses, and retention and graduation rates at the University of Louisville remain troublesome. Partly as a result, Louisville’s workers continue to lose ground in average wages.
The bottom line: Merger by itself won’t do it. Louisville must get smarter if it wants to get richer.
Shape and balance growth
A second challenge is physical: Louisville needs to grow in more compact, focused and even creative ways.
Once again, the challenge is large. More and more evidence suggests that compact, convenient regions with flourishing vibrant downtowns and a high quality of life prevail in the competition for educated workers and quality job-creation. However, 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.
So what should the region do? To forestall the “hollowing out” that has unraveled so many peer regions, the new city should lock in once and for all the idea that great regions revolve around great downtowns—dense centers where large numbers of residents gather to walk, work, live, shop and amuse themselves.
In that vein, Louisville should pour on its efforts to attract to downtown 5,000 new residents in 10 years, and to create more livable, alluring and pedestrian-friendly core neighborhoods, especially in the West End.
And here’s a thought: Shouldn’t Louisville better showcase the amazing architectural assets downtown possesses? West Main Street, for starters, boasts the largest number of 19th Century cast-iron building fronts in the entire nation, outside New York City. And yet the street remains a roaring speedway with few places to sit or talk . So why not run a median down the middle, slow traffic down, and make those glorious façades the backdrop for a truly unique urban gathering place? Sure, traffic will need to be diverted, but the benefits outweigh the costs. Louisville must make sure there is a bustling, vibrant “there” at its center.
Unite around equity
Finally, Louisville needs to make unity real by ensuring the region grows in inclusive ways that ensure the benefits of prosperity and neighborhood revitalization reach all working families.
Strong families are a precondition for competitiveness. Stable, upwardly mobile neighborhoods bolster a community’s productive capacity.
And yet, disturbing indications suggest that many families in Louisville—particularly African Americans in downtown or West End neighborhoods—continue to struggle.
In view of that, a clear imperative of the new regional city must be to continue and advance the neighborhood revitalization efforts in the inner city that were jumpstarted 10 years ago with the Park DuValle Revitalization and other efforts. In that sense, every neighborhood must become a “neighborhood of choice and connection,” where families or individuals with a broad range of incomes are fully linked to the opportunities of the full metropolis.
But beyond that, why shouldn’t Louisville aspire to build one of the strongest African-American middle-class communities in the country? To get there, the city should promote social mobility everywhere. To this end, Louisville should take additional steps to connect minority residents to jobs with the potential for advancement; make work pay for low-wage workers by enhancing access to federal work benefits like the Earned Income Tax Credit; crack down on predatory lenders who prey on low-income minorities and the elderly; and expand financial education and counseling for all residents.
And again, goals—especially audacious goals—will be helpful. For that reason, Louisville should dedicate itself to a challenging set of benchmarks for the reduction of racial disparities (in the same way it has for downtown living). After all, providing quality neighborhoods and housing choices for every resident from the urban core to the new subdivision is a worthy goal.
In the end, the time has come for Louisville to elevate its gaze—once again. Already the region has distinguished itself by getting the nitty-gritty details of merger right.
Now it’s time to win the bigger fight—the one about moving an ambitious city “beyond merger” and onto a path that ensures consolidation truly does enhance the prosperity, quality of life, and opportunity available to all Louisvillians. Do that—sustain the focus to that length—and Louisville will truly set itself apart among American cities.