Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

Louisville: The Legacy of Jerry Abramson

There was big news in Louisville last week as Mayor Jerry Abramson announced he would not seek re-election as mayor in 2010 but instead would seek the Lt. Governor post running on Gov. Steve Beshear’s re-election ticket in 2011.

This is a watershed moment in Louisville politics. Abramson is one of those towering figures, a man who has served five terms as mayor of the city, first prior to consolidation, then, after a brief voluntary hiatus in the private sector, as Louisville’s only mayor of the post-city/county consolidation era. He has been the dominant figure in Louisville politics for the entire time I’ve been old enough to understand such matters. (I only have a brief remembrance of Harvey Sloane as mayor as a child). His tenure and influence over the city is comparable to that of Mayor Daley in Chicago.

Abramson has never lost an actual public election. He’s long been an extremely popular figure and few have really dared to challenge him. But recent times have seen the Abramson magic touch lose its appeal as a series of scandals and populist movements have put pressure on him. Most notably, the 8664 movement (which I’ve endorsed) opposing a new downtown bridge positioned itself squarely against Abramson’s stance, and a wide range of groups have criticized the city’s real estate dealings with the Cordish Company out of Baltimore. Abramson retained a hammerlock on the C-J editorial page, but a collection of critical blogs and anti-Abramson movements began to pick up steam.

While almost the entire establishment stayed with him, I began to notice the same types of dynamics that were present prior to the surprise defeat of Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson in 2007. I’d have to say that Abramson was probably more vulnerable than ever in his career, and getting out isn’t necessarily a bad move. And let’s face it, after 20 years as mayor, it is probably time for some new blood. As someone recently told me, the problem with Abramson is that “he sucks the oxygen out of the room”. He so dominates Louisville’s politics that there is no room for any other voices. That’s probably not good.

Still, when looking back, I think it is easy for people to take for granted all the positive changes and momentum that Abramson brought to the table. Back in the 80’s, Louisville was a struggling place, hit hard by the ’80-’82 recession and economic kryptonite as a result of the “strike city” moniker it earned in the 1970’s.

Abramson brought a needed dose of change to the city. While no one could have prevented the declines in manufacturing employment, Abramson was extremely successful at preserving the Ford assembly plant operations. He also was instrumental in bringing the UPS air hub to Louisville, which has arguably been the greatest economic engine of growth in the city. And unlike most sorting hubs, this is also a headquarters operation. UPS Airlines, one of the largest in the world, is headquartered in Louisville, with large white collar employment including, for example, around 900 IT positions. YUM Brands and others were also lured to town or retained.

But it was as a champion of downtown Louisville that Abramson most made his mark. Like many cities, Lousville’s downtown declined mightily. It too experimented with failed fads like pedestrian malls that ultimately did more harm than good. Abramson led the charge in trying to turn this around. The Kentucky Center for the Arts opened just before he took office, as did a small downtown mall called the Galleria. That mall failed like many, and Abramson brought in Cordish to redevelop it as an entertainment venue, though not without controversy. He also expanded the convention center, built a downtown minor league stadium, upgraded facades in the Main St. historic district, and lured a series of cultural institutions downtown such as the Louisville Slugger Museum and Muhammed Ali Center. His creation of Waterfront Park might be his biggest highlight. A new downtown arena is under construction. The 21C Museum Hotel and its restaurant Proof have gotten national media attention.

The focus on downtown shows what I consider to be the mixed legacy of the mayor. As I have long put it, he has 20/20 vision for downtown, can still make out shapes as far as the city limits, but is totally blind beyond its borders. That’s changed a bit of late, but Abramson is still extremely downtown-centric and city-centric.

This dynamic influenced the bridges debate. When support was building for an East End bridge, which even a cursory glance at a map shows to be an obvious link, Abramson was horrified that traffic would be able to bypass downtown. He opposed this span and instead proposed a new downtown bridge instead. The result is the “compromise and build everything” Ohio River Bridges Project we have today.

His worldview was also on display in the debate over airport expansion. Louisville’s airport was small and landlocked. There were various proposals floated to build greenfield airports in Jefferson County or Southern Indiana, but Abramson was adamant that any airport expansion had to take place inside the city limits of the fairly small Louisville. He prevailed on this and ultimately displaced thousands of residents and businesses to build a parallel runway at Standiford Field. UPS is taken care of, but Louisville’s airport remains small and landlocked, with flight paths over many heavily populated areas.

And of course he hated the Caesars riverboat casino in Indiana. Actually, he pretty much hates all economic development in Southern Indiana, since his tax base is heavily dependent on commuter taxes paid by Hoosiers. The results of his opposition to all development outside the city limits has been a history of poisoned regional relations. This will likely haunt the city long term. Once Jefferson County is full and development spills into the collar counties, Louisville is likely to experience the same sort of dynamics as Indianapolis and Cincinnati. A really big difference between those cities is that Indy has had solid regional relations and Cincy very poor ones. The differences are clear in the differing results those cities have had. I think Louisvillians instinctively get this. One reason I believe merger passed after two previous failed attempts is because county residents realized they were now starting to become part of the “inner city” too.

The enlarged scope of post-merger Louisville expanded Abramson’s vision as well. He’s been a big supporter of the City of Parks initiative, which is aiming to build a necklace of parks and trails in outer Jefferson County, for example. I think this is one of the greatest initiatives any city anywhere has going on.

Abramson’s new role seems curious. It’s not an obvious step up from Mayor to Lt. Governor. With Sen. Jim Bunning retiring, that might have been a more interesting choice. Perhaps he felt that anti-Louisville sentiment in Kentucky, which is very strong, would have made it hard for him to get elected. Former Jefferson County Judge-Executive Mitch McConnell made the move from Louisville to state politics, but it wouldn’t have been a slam dunk for Abramson.

And the Lt. Governor role opens up an interesting possibility for Abramson to leave possibly his most important legacy. I noted the strong anti-Louisville sentiment elsewhere in the state. Some years back the C-J even had an editorial cartoon titled “Other Bridges Louisville Needs to Build”, showing bridge building to the rest of the state. If Abramson is able to spend this campaign and four years as Lt. Governor building bridges between Louisville and the rest of Kentucky, finding a way to make common cause together, the positive impact of that on both Louisville and the state can not be under-estimated.

Despite my problems with Abramson’s downtown-centricity, I can respect that he was motivated by a desire to make Louisville great. This is clearly a guy with a burning passion to make sure that Louisville stayed in the game among cities in its general size tier. His general enthusiasm for the city and role as Louisville’s “Cheerleader in Chief” has been key to building positive momentum in the city. Given that it is materially smaller than many of those places, making it happen has been no small feat. It might seem impossible that Louisville could go the way of say Dayton, Ohio. But without a guy like Abramson at the helm in the 80’s and 90’s, I think that could have been more a possible reality than people are willing to consider.

It will take some time to judge Abramson’s legacy. Major parts of it like the bridges project, the arena, and the city center project are yet to be written. But on the whole, I think you’d have to say that Abramson’s tenure has generally been positive for the city. And I give him a ton of credit for a lot of the good things that happened in the last 25 years. If Louisville is on the map today, then Jerry Abramson probably deserves a lot of the credit.

Coverage of Abramson’s Decision to Not Seek Re-Election
C-J Special Section on Abramson
Jerry Abramson Timeline
City can survive without Abramson, leaders say
Candidates line up to replace ‘Mayor for Life’

Topics: Strategic Planning
Cities: Louisville

10 Responses to “Louisville: The Legacy of Jerry Abramson”

  1. Mike at The Big Stick says:

    Fantastic recap of Abramson's career. I think he certainly has a lot to be proud of, but as you say, it's time for some new blood. The (brief) tenure of Dave Armstrong made me realize that there are a lot of great ideas out there just lacking a personality strong enough to bring them along. Armstrong had vision but not talent to lead the city in the way he had the county.

    One thing about Jerry's downtown focus has been my fear of Louiville's urban economy gravitating towards boutique status. Too many places to spend our money and not enough places to earn it.

  2. wyojeff says:

    Nice post, very informative. I just read about your senator being forced out (as he says) the other day, and I was not familiar with Louisville politics. However, my affinity for bourbon recently took me to the area when traveling in Indiana. I must say that the downtown area, while still gritty in some places, felt great to me. Felt like a real, vibrant downtown, however I think mike may have a point about not enough places to earn the money.

  3. David says:

    Urban: Not a bad review of the 'mayor for life'. A couple of things:

    * Louisville's airport remains small and landlocked
    – it is large enough for 2 parallel runways and one of those long enough to handle the heaviest/longest range flights
    – it is large enough to provide space for UPS WorldPort sorting facility
    – it is large enough to provide maintenace/hangar space for at least 3 airlines (UPS, Republic, Compass)
    – it is large enough to provide space for passenger terminal expansion if/when it is needed.
    – it is large enough to handle much increased level of air traffic (daytime anyway)
    – if there is a downside the location does put noise over many populated areas but the close-in proximity and quieter aircraft out-weigh that issue.
    – SDF is in much better shape than 'larger' airports in the region who face abandoned terminals; unused runway capacity; and rising costs associated with newer/more expensive/larger facilities.

    * A really big difference between those cities is that Indy has had solid regional relations and Cincy very poor ones.
    – it is far easier for Indy to have stronger relations with outlying regions because they are all in Indiana and the Capital is Indianapolis. Louisville and Cinci need to deal with 2 facts that Indy never has to deal with: #1) Counties in its metro are in 1 other (or in the case of Cinci) 2 other states
    #2) The state capitol is not there. (Cinci has the bigger challenge because Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo etc all vy for attention from Columbus).

    I would like mayor-for-life to take the extra-ordinary stand and be in favor of 8664. It will not happen, but aside from making sense economically, it would also go a long way toward strengthening relations with Southern Indiana

  4. Steve Magruder says:

    Lots of excellent food for thought!

    If it weren't for all the negative issues during Mayor Jer's recent two terms, it would be easy to laud him for his first three extraordinarily good terms. At any rate, as many are saying, new blood is a good thing, and political dominance by one figure is doing too much to keep out fresh new ideas.

    I am working on an article discussing the expectations for the next mayor. Your discussion of the current mayor's lack of regional economic thinking plays very well into the thoughts I've been having.

  5. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    Steve, I have to agree with you. I think Abramson went off track from a policy perspective in his last four years. From his adamant support for the bridges, to the arena site, to the water company block -> not good decisions. Still, definitely some good in there too like city of parks and the medical research center downtown.

    I'll be interested to see your write-up. Please send it to me when you were finished.

  6. Crossed says:

    What specifically did he have to do with 21c and Proof? Don't you think the Browns would havve located them there regardless of who the mayor is/was?

  7. bluegill says:

    As mentioned, the problem with Abramson's iconic status is that all roads have led through him for a couple of decades. While that allowed him accomplishment and credit, it's also meant that capacity development outside of City Hall was stunted and, at times, thwarted. Louisville's future may well depend on the democracy that develops in Abramson's wake.

    Interesting factoid: With the exception of Dave Armstrong's single term, remaining Louisville natives 40 and younger have never experienced the city under anyone's leadership but Abramson's in their adult lifetimes. The median age is a few years younger than that.

  8. hharrington says:

    Jerry did a lot for the city. He is to be commended. It's kinda en vogue right now bash him in Louisville, but he did do a lot for the city. I will say this about his last 8 years. They weren't his best. Aside form the City of Parks initiative and merger (two really big projects) , a lot of what he has done was really just a continuation of what Dave Armstrong started. Dave started the whole investing downtown movement. I think he even started the negotiations with the Cordish company about 4th street live. What killed Dave was that he wasn't the best politician.

    The next 18 months are going to be great. People are coming out of the woodwork to run for mayor. Even though the field isn't set look for a Fischer vs. Pence for the whole ball of wax.

    On a side note. 8664 isn't dead. There is a lot of public support for the idea. I think he primaries and the election itself might prove beneficial for the project.

  9. Jefferey says:

    Abramson would have been a cheerleader without a team on the field if he didn't have the business community backing him up. To some extent he takes credit for economic development things that have been cooking before Metro, that started in the dark days of the early 1980s. Elements of the business community played a role in this, as much as elected officials.

    You and the commentators might want to look at this:

    A Restoring Prosperity Case Study: Louisville

    …it discusses the economic history of the city and goes into detail regarding the recent past. From this one see Abramson is the most visible part of a larger effort.

    (the series also looks at Chattanooga and Akron as case studies).

  10. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    Of course, no one, not even the mayor, single handedly makes things happen. But whether it be mayor, governor, or president, the people at the top gets the credit or the blame for the things that happen while they are in office.

    And that's not entirely inappropriate. Crossed, perhaps Abramson had little to do with 21C per se, but without the climate his tenure produced, would it have ever come to be? There's a good chance not.

    Jeff, thanks for the Brookings link.

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