Thursday, March 27th, 2014

The Urbanophile Interview: Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer

I recently sat down to talk for about half an hour with Louisville, Kentucky Mayor Greg Fischer. We had a wide ranging discussion that ventured from branding to globalization, regionalism, talent attraction, legacy, and more. If the audio player below doesn’t display, click here for the MP3 file.

Mayor Greg Fischer. Image via Wikipedia.

Here are some edited highlights of our discussion. For those who prefer reading to listening, a complete transcript is available.

On an economic development partnership between Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky’s second largest city:

[Globaization] is central to who we are as a city. We have a very high export ratio here. We out export, we punch above our weight if you will, as a city. My background is one as an international business guy and we’ve spent a lot of time growing a broader regional economy. The city of Lexington and Louisville have a joint economic development plan that we did with the Brookings Institution called BEAM, Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement. And a central thrust of that is growing exports throughout the region. We have people that go out and help businesses understand that’s the way of the future.

As a business guy, I’ve been more of a small, medium sized business person, 500 employees and below, so frequently I would compete with large, multinational corporations. When you start your career, you’re like, “My gosh, how can I compete against this firm that’s got manufacturing plants or offices all over the world and 10,000 employees?” What you find is as a small company, you have a lot of advantages that the big company doesn’t have. You’re closer to the customer. You’re nimbler. You can speak for the company.

So when you take a look at the challenges of a state like Kentucky, we’re not one of the biggest states. We’re certainly not one of the smallest, either. So what we’ve got to do is be excellent at partnering with each other internal to the state so that we can use that as a competitive advantage when we compete with other countries or other states for economic development. Louisville and Lexington combined metro region, including Southern Indiana, is about two and a half million people or so, more scale than just us at 1.3 million and certainly, more scale than just Lexington.

On regional cooperation with Southern Indiana:

When people move to Southern Indiana, they identify as moving to the Louisville area, typically. Our restaurants over here, our housing options over here are complementary to what’s in Southern Indiana so if a company is going to say, “Okay. I’m going to be in Southern Indiana or I’m going be in Missouri,” I want them in Southern Indiana.

Southern Indiana’s got some advantages that we don’t have. We don’t have that much open land left in Jefferson County. River Ridge, which is just opening across the river, is going to be helped by these bridges going in right now, these megaprojects, the Ohio River Bridges Project. It will be where a lot of these businesses are going to locate. I’d rather they locate there again than in some other state. So we win as a region because people live regionally. We’re happy to cooperate and brainstorm with Southern Indiana.

On how Louisville’s relationship with the state of Kentucky is evolving:

Evolving is the right term. Louisville produces about $2.4 billion a year of taxes and we get back $1.2 billion. Kentucky has been cited as the fourth most centrally controlled economy in the country in terms of states. In other words, sending taxes to our capital and redistributing them throughout the state. So it’s a challenge for us. I’m working right now to get the state constitution changed so that all cities and counties have the right to levy a local option sales tax where their citizens have the right to vote on specific capital projects, paid for in a specific way with that temporary sales tax sunsetting. Part of that is so local cities, whether it’s Louisville or Pikeville or anywhere in the state, could have more specific control over their built environment. So, that’s one way to address it.

Long term, we need some type of overall state tax reform. But in any state, you’re going to have an economic engine like we are here in Kentucky that contributes more to the balance of the state than what it is they generate. Our rural legislators are very good at teamwork, if you will, and our metropolitan legislators are not so good at teamwork. So they can be our own worst enemy in terms of directing more funds back to where they were originally generated – in this case, Louisville.

On the local food scene:

It’s been an interesting way to see how the rural parts of the state and the metropolitan areas really appreciate the partnership that we have with our local food movement. Like many places around the country but particularly here, when you go into restaurants, you’ll see the origin of the food in terms of the farmers that they came from. We were the first city in the world that we know of to do a demand analysis for local food, how much local food do people want to consume here. We did that deliberately to help our partners in the rural areas of the state, the farmers, so that they can understand that they’ve got a big, growing market in the biggest city in Kentucky.

When we did this survey, no matter what somebody’s socio-economic background was, everybody supported local food. They said, a), it’s healthier and b), we want to help local businesses. So, it kind of busted this myth that local food, farmers markets, all this was just yuppie kind of thing. Everybody appreciates good local food.

On why a 2014 college grad would choose Louisville over other cities such as Cincinnati or Nashville:

One, you want to take a look at the culture of the city. Are you going to be able to fit in? Are you going to be able to make a difference? You know, not every city is perfect for every student. So, is there a connection? Do you like our art scene? Do you like our local food scene here? What about the innovation we’re doing with the makerspace, for instance? Because I think we’re among the best in the country in that regard.

Take a look at the economic development clusters that are important to a city. In our case, are you into lifelong wellness and aging care, or food and beverage, or logistics and e-commerce, or business services, advanced manufacturing? Where is that fit for you? I can guarantee if you’re going to live here, you’re going to have a good quality of life and enjoy yourself, but are you going to be able to be employed in a meaningful way?

Any city that says they’re everything for everybody is being disingenuous. It’s just like a company. When you look at the city, find a place whose values mirror yours and whose opportunities mirror your interests at the same time. Make sure it’s got a beautiful, natural environment like we have here that’s full of nice people, and then you’ll have a good place to live – and it would be nice if it was Louisville.

There’s a lot more where this came from so listen to the whole thing or read the complete transcript.

Some may be wondering about the Ohio River Bridges Project. There were no restrictions on what topics I could ask about, and I haven’t changed my opinion on it. But I felt the discussion time would be productively spent elsewhere so did not ask about it.

Topics: Economic Development, Globalization, Regionalism, Talent Attraction, Urban Culture
Cities: Louisville

31 Responses to “The Urbanophile Interview: Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer”

  1. wkg in bham says:

    Are you sure this guy is a Democrat? I could vote for him in a heartbeat. I would be interested in actual, concrete, things that he’s done.

    Has anyone here ridden a Megabus? I’m interested in the actual ride experience itself.

  2. John Morris says:

    Wow, you haven’t ridden a Megabus?

    On average I have found them to be pretty great, providing one has realistic expectations. Fellow riders tend toward the hipster, student range- often very quiet, responsible. Service seems pretty reliable- but late departures can be very unpleasant in bad weather since most pick-ups are outside. Drivers, IMHO seem very nice and responsible. Buses are clean.

    Anyone counting on the “free Wi-fi is likely to be disappointed.

    I tend to ride about 4-5 times a year, so I don’t have a huge experience. Compared to say- Amtrak, it’s amazing.

  3. wkg in bham says:

    Thanks John
    I thought the eticketing/plastic requirement would result in a different dempgraphic than greyhound.

    Bummer about the wifi

    Do they ever stop for breaks?

  4. John Morris says:

    Usually, one stop per trip for about a half hour. Basically, my experience is with the Pittsburgh to NYC route.

    Sometimes the wi-fi works, I just wouldn’t count on it.

    I had one really bad experience (out of about 25 trips )where the bus didn’t arrive for about 3 hours with no info given. Lucky the weather was great in NYC that day. But, poor Amtrak service is the rule at least on that route & airline delays can be at least as bad.

  5. Eric Fazzini says:

    I’ve lived in Louisville, Indianapolis, Covington and now Cincinnati, and the best urban living experience I’ve had in the tri-state thus far has been in Cincinnati. Numerous Fortune 500 companies, riverfront highway setback and below the river allowing for a new park, a modern piazza, a renovated Washington park, and numerous neighborhood business districts once you get out of downtown (though poorly connected by transit). There is progressive urbanist momentum in all of these cities, but look what locals here did here saving the streetcar, something that may never be built in KY, TN or IN.

  6. Eric Fazzini says:

    @ wkg in bham? I’m not sure what Megabus route you’re talking about, but the Sunday trip home from Chicago can be terribly uncomfortable as it’s usually packed (especially if you’re hungover from the weekend) and there always seems to be a fight over the luggage line.

    When I go to Chicago from Indy and now Cincinnati, I much prefer driving to the East Chicago station and taking the South Shore Line commuter train in. Parking is plentiful, safe and free, the train runs ever hour both ways roughly following the path of the skyway, the ride is $5, and it takes you right to Millennium Station. Plus you get to ride on the last interurban in the country and its a neat way to see the south side.

  7. wkg in bham says:

    Specifically the Birmingham-Altanta-Orlando route. The Atlanta-Orlando leg is approximately 9 hours long. Do you need to pack a lunch?

    btw, 9 hours is “making good time”. It’s about a 450 mile trip.

    rail service in the southeast is very spotty. birmingham has every-other-day service to New Orleans in one direction and Washington in the other.

  8. John Morris says:

    I would guess almost for sure they will make a stop- for about a half hour at a truck stop with a restaurant.

  9. John Morris says:

    “Partnership between Louisville and Lexington”

    After they knock u out of the dance and bust my bracket?

  10. wkg in bham says:


    You wouldn’t believe what a big deal college sports are here in the southeast. The only thing I can compare it to is pro sports in Boston. Maybe Chicago…Dah Bears…Dah Bulls.

    Go Gators.

  11. John Morris says:

    I missed UAB @ the dance this year. They usually field an exciting team.

    Louisville vs Kentucky in a tournament game in Indianapolis must have been pretty great.

  12. wkg in bham says:

    It’s remarkable that the states of Indiana and Kentucky are so consistently good in college basketball. I think of the sport as being an urban specialty. Yet the biggest city of within the two is Indianapolis; and Indianapolis just isn’t all that urban in the traditional meaning of the word.

    In a similar way, why are the states of Alabama and Florida so totally dominant in college football?

    One might even ask why the New York-New Jersey area such a sports dud (at least at the college level)?

    Re UAB: Bham turns out some pretty good high school talent. But they’re just as likely to go off to UK or Louisville than stay in state. Also, I don’t think our depth of talent just doesn’t compare.

  13. John Morris says:

    “One might even ask why the New York-New Jersey area is such a sports dud.”

    Big East basketball wasn’t exactly a dud and most of those kids came from the NYC/NJ/Philly area. Pitt always relied on getting basketball recruits from the NYC area. Duke certainly gets kids from the NYC/ Jersey City area.

    I lived within walking distance of Archbishop Molloy, a college & pro basketball factory and short driving distance of schools like Christ The King & Boys & Girls.

    To a large extent, area colleges don’t live and die on sports programs for recruiting. The Big East Schools basically made a decision about how much sports would define their schools.

  14. John Morris says:

    No surprise, Louisville’s team was partly built on NYC kids too.

    Its an interesting subject as to why the NYC area schools havn’t become more dominant. The short answer is that most don’t have to rely on sports to build reputations & decided the very high risk/ Cap ex cost of building big stadiums, wasn’t worth it. A place like Penn State has to have stuff like that.

  15. wkg in bham says:

    I agree that the Washington-Baltimore-Philly-NYC region is the El Dorado of high school basketball talent. Everybody recruits the area. Seton Hall, St. Johns, and Villanova will occasionally have good teams. Temple was consistently good for a while there but has fallen off. Only Georgetown seems to be using the talent on a consistent basis.

    Compare this with Xavier and Butler working with a good, but much smaller Indianapolis talent pool are achieving.

    I think the capex argument applies to football, but I don’t think it applies to basketball.

  16. John Morris says:

    “I think the capex argument applies to football, but I don’t think it applies to basketball.”

    It applies to basketball a lot less & you can still have a good team with as few as 2 or 3 super quality players and a great one with 2 or 3 more. The total scholarship investment is less.

    Even so, these issues apply. Syracuse can tell kids they can play in a 49,000 seat stadium in a town where everything revolves around the team.

    St John’s, Villanova & Georgetown (Providence.. etc) were very close to being top dogs in the early 80’s. But to some extent all the Catholics (except Notre Dame) seemed to decide one by one that they would only go so far in terms of diluting standards or piling cash into Football to maintain status.

    The programs that felt they wanted to/ had to do that- like Syracuse, Pitt, WVU & UConn jumped the conference.

    If one goes further back, NYC once had the City League scandal.

    “In 1950, City College accomplished perhaps the greatest feat in basketball history, winning the National Invitation and the NCAA tournaments. One year later there was devastation as New York District Attorney Frank Hogan indicted players from four New York schools, including City College. The other New York schools were Manhattan College, New York University and Long Island University.

    The earthshaking scandals of 1951, which eventually reached to seven schools and 32 players around the country, actually erupted on Jan. 17, 1951 when Henry Poppe and Jack Byrnes of the previous year’s Manhattan team plus three fixers: Cornelious Kelleher and brothers Benjamin and Irving Schwartzberg, who were bookmakers and convicted felons, were booked on bribery and conspiracy charges. All were in violation of section 382 of the penal code, the bill passed by the New York State legislature in 1945, which established as illegal an attempt to bribe a participant in any sporting event, amateur or professional. Poppe and Byrnes actually “had done business” with Kelleher in the 1949-50 season and received $50 a week during the off season of that year plus $3,000 to insure Manhattan lost games by the point margin to Siena, Santa Clara and Bradley in Madison Square Garden.”

    The whole thing is long forgotten cause none of these schools really needed big time sports to get by.

    Hard core Pitt fans gripe that the team doesn’t have a big on campus Football Stadium and that the whole life of the city doesn’t revolve around the team.

  17. wkg in bham says:

    @John: “the whole life of the city doesn’t revolve around the team.” I think this is the heart of the matter. If you’re recruiting the best-of-the-best, let’s facing you’re dealing with a bunch of egomaniacs. They want to compete in the big time, under the best coaches and have the national spotlight on them. They want it to be a big deal. How do you explain U Kansas being so good year after year? I’ve never been to Kansas, but I think it’s safe to say UK basketball is a 24/7/365 interest there. No matter how good they are, St. Johns is never going to be more than a sidelight in NYC.

    There’s always an exception to the rule; UCLA and the Lakers seem to co-exist quite nicely in LA.

  18. John Morris says:

    “No matter how good they are, St. Johns is never going to be more than a sidelight in NYC.”

    Right, about 2 miles from St John’s during the Carnesecca, golden age Final Four era and it hardly seemed like that many people cared. I mean I doubt it would be that way in Lawrence Kansas.

  19. John Morris says:

    The Syracuse arena is almost 10x larger than St. Johns’s. In a way I admire the school for saying they were not gonna go there.

  20. wkg in bham says:

    @John: “In a way I admire the school for saying they were not gonna go there”. Me too. I went to U Florida. Big time sports introduced a degree of thugery totally inappropriate. I’d just as soon go back to AA level and use, more or less, real students.

  21. John Morris says:

    I know this is way off the main topic of this post.

    No hard data on this but, I actually suspect the core part of NYC is much less of a basketball factory than it once was. Off hand I can’t think of a huge star popping out of Harlem in recent years. Mostly it’s Queens & certain parts of deep eastern & southern Brooklyn generating a lot of the players. (Washington Heights & the Bronx seem to create baseball players)

    Two big factors are likely at work.

    A) Dominican, Mexican, Haitian, Jamaican and other recent immigrant groups favor soccer, baseball and other sports.

    B) Kids living closer in to Manhattan have a greater variety of opportunities and are less likely to feel like Basketball is their only ticket out of poverty.

    This is hard to fully prove cause a lot of the factory type schools like Molloy & St Anthony’s in Jersey City get kids from all over the area. Colleges tend to just say a kid is from “Brooklyn”,Queen or The Bronx rather than identifying the exact neighborhood.

  22. Eric Fazzini says:

    Collegiate sports in general are not that strong in the Northeast, other than maybe hockey and lacrosse. But it’s very easy to find numbers on which states produce the most NBA players, which would not include Indiana, Kentucky, Kansas, or North Carolina, the blue bloods states. High school ball is where most NBA talent begins to surface, especially if you’re a one-and-done.

  23. John Morris says:

    I’m looking for finer data about particular neighborhoods. “Brooklyn” or “New York” doesn’t tell me much.

  24. Chris Barnett says:

    Eric, at least one source indicates that on a per-capita (population-adjusted) basis, Kentucky is 5th and Indiana is 6th in producing NBA players. High-school ball is almost religion in those two states, so a high-school player has better odds of making the NBA from there than from anywhere on the East Coast other than DC.


  25. John Morris says:

    That fits with what I thought, NY is not a top generator on a per-capita basis.

    Would like the stats for just NYC.

    Would like the stats for which states create the most division 1 players. NBA & college games are still very different (My guess is Indiana does even better at that)

    Would like the stats modeled over time.

    My theory (Hoop Dreams Theory) is that to some extent, sports prowess is inversely correlated to the overall level of economic/ social opportunity. Kids in Harlem are likely less likely to feel Basketball is their only option than a kid in East New York. Likewise, colleges in NYC are less likely to rely on sports programs as a major student selling point.

  26. John Morris says:

    No real surprise the sports obsessed UConn, is in some isolated little town and depends on sports to sell the school. Rutgers is also making a desperate grasp for the same reason.

  27. Eric Fazzini says:

    @ Chris Barnett That website is obviously no good. Use these two more respected sports websites.

  28. Chris Barnett says:

    Eric, I cited a per-capita measure, which is a decent “gross” statistical measure over a population. You are citing an absolute count (which disregards the population base) and a current all-star roster (which is both subjective and ignores history). They aren’t really statistical indicators.

    Yes, for small states the per-capita measure is skewed by outliers (New Hampshire, with one player), but for the 35-40 or so non-small states, the ones which have more residents than a mid-sized metro, it’s a valid expression of the law of large numbers. It’s a reasonable way to compare.

  29. gb says:

    “Indiana, living up to its reputation, may have the strongest high school basketball tradition in the country. With 41 All-Americans in 36 years, Indiana has produced more talent than Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, all significantly larger states, and trails only Illinois, New York, and California. Adjusting for population size, the Hoosier State blows the field away. Maryland is also a hotbed of talent, as are a handful of Southern states (Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Virginia, and Tennessee), and neighboring Illinois.”

  30. John Morris says:

    Thanks! This is the most detailed link on the subject I have seen and Indiana comes out looking even stronger.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

About the Urbanophile


Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

Full Bio


Please email before connecting with me on LinkedIn if we don't already know each other.



Copyright © 2006-2014 Urbanophile, LLC, All Rights Reserved - Click here for copyright information and disclosures