Saturday, February 10th, 2007

Louisville’s 2007 Competitive City Report: A Critique

An organization called the Greater Louisville Project recently issued its 2007 Competitive City Report. The mission of this organization is to move Louisville into the top tier of its competitor bracket. Since that’s the bracket I cover on this blog, this is a study I’m interested in. It tracks Louisville’s competitive standing across three main dimensions: educational attainment, 21st century jobs, and balanced regional growth.

In general I found this study fairly weak. Many of the charts are unreadable. Raw data in a tabular format was not available. Their basis of comparison is imperfect, though to some extent I consider this inevitable as it is difficult to draw a truly apples to apples comparison between cities. What’s more, they use inconsistent measures of comparative basis, and the one being used in each case is not even mentioned on many of the charts. For example, educational attainment appears to be based on the central county of the MSA, while homeownership by race is based on the entire MSA. I’ve noticed this is commonly done in locally commissioned studies and it always raises a red flag with me.

Some of the charts didn’t even to make sense. For example, consider the very first one on page two. I’m not even sure if this is a real chart, or if it is just a piece of illustrative artwork. There is no data even describing what it is. And what’s more, the two charts don’t foot. Both of them contain a measure of year 2000 data but the values for 2000 are inconsistent. For example, Louisville is below Kansas City in the year 2000 on the bottom chart but above it in 2000 on the top chart. This was by far the worst graph, but others were similarly confusing. The authors seemed focused on creating eye candy versus communicating information.

Another example. The study talks about three areas they are tracking up front, but at the end of the study they mention five areas, which only partially overlap with the three areas. What is the relationship between these? It isn’t made clear.

I did take a run at parsing this, however. And came up with some general conclusions.

Regarding education, it does appear that Louisville’s educational attainment is increasing. For example, the percentage of adults aged 25-34 in Jefferson County with a bachelors degree or higher increased from 22.6% in 1990 to 33.1% in 2000. That’s real progress. Whether it backs up the claim that Louisville is gaining on competitors cities is open to debate.

As I said, there is no good way to get an apples to apples comparison of data between cities. Perhaps the best measure is urbanized area, but it is difficult to get stats sliced that way. The absolute worst way is to use central city populations and to their credit, the study authors did not do that. Central county population is a much better comparative base. However, I believe this can cause misleading comparisons. Jefferson County, Kentucky remains dominant in its MSA. Other than some urban development in Southern Indiana, most of the rest of the collar counties are still fairly rural. So eastern Jefferson County really continues to be the dominant residential and commercial location for higher educated and income people. This is in contrast to some larger competitors. For example, Kansas City has major suburban centers like Overland Park directly across the border in Kansas. Indianapolis has Hamilton County just north of the city, population ~250,000, which is the premier white collar address. Other competitors cities have similar structures to which Louisville has no analogue. I noticed right away when the Census stats came out that Louisville’s worst comparison metric vs. other cities was MSA college degree attainment. MSA measurement has its own flaws I’ll be the first to say, but people should be aware that a central county comparison probably inflates Louisville’s relative standing.

On the 21st century jobs front, I must confess it was difficult for me to draw a clear picture from the data they assembled. The takeaway the study group wants us to draw though, is that while the city is making very good strides in beefing up its educational attainment, there is still a lot of work to do on the jobs front. I can buy that.

Balanced Regional Growth is a topic that immediately raised red flags with me. This is the one area that seemed to perfectly overlap between the three topics and the five topics. Their description of the goal here was vague, but it doesn’t take an expert in Bill Clinton type parsing to figure out that what they are really talking about is finding a way to make sure that Jefferson County, Kentucky continues to remain the dominant force in the region.

Consider this definition of Balanced Regional Growth from the study: “The challenge is to think and act more a region, improving transportation and cooperation to ensure equitable development”. Or this other statement: “Louisvillians have traditionaly put a high value on cohesion and convenience that allows them to enjoy both big-city amenities and a small-town atmosphere. Both are at risk without vigorous efforts to achieve balanced growth across the metropolitan region.”

Think and act more as a region. Ok, I got that. And I agree with it. I think better regional cooperation is one of the key to-do’s on Louisville’s plate. But what is “equitable development”? And how does one define “cohesion and convenience” and how does the study group know these are valued by Louisvillians? For that matter, what is there definition of a Louisvillian? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what all these nebulous, feel good terms really add up to.

It is very clear from the report and the GLP web site that they are fully aware that Louisville is reaching the point that a lot of its larger peers like Kansas City and Indianapolis already have. Namely, the central county is filling up, and can’t rely on edge development within the county boundaries for economic growth. Instead, the development wave is heading to outlying counties, leaving the central county as a whole in the role of central city. I’ve long argued that in some ways Louisville’s city-county merger took place just at the point when it had ceased to be relevant. Perhaps that also explains why the voters endoresed it. They realize they are all central city dwellers now. If Indianapolis is a case study here, it shows what is in store for Louisville: residents starting to flee now decaying surburban areas to build new enclaves in the collar counties. Offices, jobs, etc. are soon to follow. So Jefferson County is right to be worried about this.

The problem is that regionalism isn’t the answer. Their definition of regionalism seems to be all about benefits for the central city. Why would anyone not living there sign up for that? What is Louisville actually going to do for them? That’s the question that needs to be answered first. When you are the big dog, you have to move first in order to establish trust. Especially in light of the extreme hostility that has traditionally been shown to suburban areas by Louisville generally and Mayor Jerry Abramson in particular. That mean’s Louisville needs to start treating its suburban areas as a community asset and draw, not as competitors.

Consider Southern Indiana. Jerry Abramson spent years campaigning against an east end bridge that would open up eastern Clark County to development and, to his horror, allow drivers to bypass downtown. Louisville leaders have continuously bashed the Caesar’s casino. They handed big money to induce Hillerich and Bradsby to relocate to Louisville from Jeffersonville. Just recently they convinced Metal Sales, Inc. to move from Indiana to Louisville. That’s Jerry Abramson’s definition of regionalism. Until Louisville changes its tune on the surburbs, the call for regionalism is going to be seen for the transparent fraud that it is.

As I say, Louisville needs to take the lead. Here’s a few things that they could to start establishing trust:

- Agree to a non-agression pact where all communities agree not to try to poach each other’s businesses.

- Repudiate the anti-casino rhetoric and embrace Caesars as an asset to the community. I don’t like the idea of a casino in town myself, but it is there, so make the best of it. No one has to apologize, just make the switch from negative to positive.

- Start meeting regularly with other regional leaders. Find out what Louisville can do to help them. Actively campaign to bring businesses to collar counties when there isn’t something directly in it for him.

- Tout as community assets other items not in Louisville proper. A few well placed words in a speech would certainly be recognized.

These would be a start. Louisville has about the poorest regional cooperation of any city I know. Getting on board with real regionalism now is something that is critical because like it or not, the days where Jefferson County is the center of development are just about over and aren’t coming back.

On the whole, the goal of this GLP group seems laudable, even if I would have a slightly different vision. But this report was not top quality work and embodies some dangerous ideas such as faux regionalism that can do more harm than good.

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Topics: Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Education, Public Policy, Regionalism
Cities: Louisville

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