The City That Never Went Bust

National Journal

This article is the first in a weeklong America 360series on Louisville.

Democratic politics isn't exactly littered with former manufacturing executives. But in Kentucky, the Democratic mayors of the state's two largest cities are both men who led their own global companies. Mayor Greg Fischer of Louisville founded SerVend International when he invented an automatic ice and beverage dispenser, and his colleague Jim Gray of Lexington is the former chairman and CEO of Gray Construction. Both were elected in 2010, and since then have launched the Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement with help from the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. BEAM is a regional economic partnership that combines the two medium-sized cities into a mega-region to attract employers and new highly skilled workers.

National Journal's Amy Sullivan sat down with Fischer recently in his City Hall office. The 55-year-old mayor and Louisville native talked about the challenges of bringing a manufacturing base into the 21st century, as well as the city's innovative farm-to-table program and other local initiatives that led Lonely Planet to declare Louisville "The Top U.S. Travel Destination for 2013." Edited excerpts follow. 

Many of the jobs that are coming to Louisville are high-skill, high-wage positions. How do you help prepare workers for jobs that are outside the traditional manufacturing sector? 

One way is with Metropolitan College, which is probably one of the most innovative workforce-development initiatives in the country. It started because UPS's global air hub is here, and they were having a hard time having consistency on their third shift. Turnover was very high and they just weren't getting the quality of worker that they wanted. So a partnership formed between the city, the University of Louisville, the state, and UPS to basically offer some scholarships to people to go to the University of Louisville, work the third shift—they get paid for that by UPS—and UPS picks up part of the tuition reimbursement.

I don’t know what percentage of graduates go on to work for UPS, but quite a few do. That was just an awesome answer to a problem. That’s helped with the workforce obviously for UPS, but we’ve also tried to bring in our other large companies for the graduates of that program, like Yum [Brands] and Humana.

At one point, UPS was able to absorb all the students who wanted to work there. Now there are too many. So we’re trying to expand that to our larger companies and say, "Hey, can you take some of the kids when they graduate? Is there some kind of training that they should get that would be more consistent with what you all are doing?" It was a creative response to an emerging workforce need here. 

How has your background in manufacturing affected the way you approach your job?

It’s been great. In particular on this project, you know my partner is Jim Gray, the mayor of Lexington. We formed this regional economic development strategy with Brookings. You really don’t appreciate how much of an advantage having a business background is until you get in government and find how many people don’t have a business background. Especially when it comes to manufacturing, you have people without that experience kind of looking at it from a theoretical standpoint. The 25 years I’ve spent doing this put me so far ahead of other people in terms of what the solutions need to be. So I can help accelerate the learning curve on that, and the solutions as well.

Jim Gray is the same way. Gray Construction is building a huge percentage of the leading manufacturing facilities, not just here and in the States, but around the world as well. So they’re tied into what the global needs are. It’s really helped us pinpoint the exact needs coming out of this region. We believe we’re one of the leaders in the country in advanced manufacturing. But to stay there and accelerate there, there are things we need to do with human capital, infrastructure, and government solutions.

What kind of solution have you been able to see in a different way?

The most obvious is workforce readiness, especially at the skilled-trades level. The nature of work has changed so much just in the last, say, 10 years, from where a good strong back and a good work ethic was enough, to now you have to know how to solve problems, you have to know how to lead, you need to know how to follow, and you need to have some technology capacity for whatever your job will be in the factory.

That’s a different profile of a worker. I knew that from being an employer and owner of a company, as has Jim. The key there is to get the public sector, get the education sector moving more at the speed of business with some of these issues. We don’t need to take long periods of times studying these things because it’s been our life. We know what is needed, and try to get the programs in place as quickly as possible.

At some point, the workforce readiness goes beyond just retraining workers who are already out there in the workforce. How does education at earlier levels play a role?

We have a program called "55,000 Degrees" that we started over two years ago. The goal is to have 55,000 more college degrees in the community by the year 2020 than we normally would have. When we achieve that, we'll be at about 50 percent of our adult population with college degrees. That program is a collective impact model—that’s all of the different constituencies around that particular topic represented on that board, which I chair. We have business interests, nonprofits, high schools, colleges, all united around this one issue of trying to get these degrees.

We’re going down to the individual business level and asking them what’s your commitment, can we count you in? And going to churches in the community that have an after-school activity to see how many kids can you get through college that you wouldn’t have before; what’s your program to do that?

It’s an intense, focused—you get it done one student as a time. That program is designed to make sure that we are guaranteed to become a 21st-century city that has innovation at its core. As you look at all cities around the world right now, you have this transition from 20th-century cities that were overreliant on manufacturing or in the Third World overreliant on extraction of minerals from the soil to 21st cities that will be innovation-oriented, technology-oriented. You still will have these older industries as well, but there will be innovation going on there as well.

Farming is certainly one of those older economic sectors. How has the city's farm-to-table program impacted the community?

Every mayor wants their city to provide a distinctive, authentic experience. Local food has led to a more creative restaurant scene here. We have some of the best chefs in the world here now. Zagat names the foodiest cities in the world, and we're always on that list. So having fresh, local food has helped create this authentic experience. When people come here, they really enjoy our food and beverage culture—bourbon is part of that. That drives tourism and that's good.

But then you also have food-access issues throughout the community to make sure that people have accessibility to nutritious food, which has health ramifications, which drives the cost of the city down. And then you have job ramifications—we're creating a food hub here in the city. One quick example: Jefferson County Public Schools now want as much local food as possible for health reasons and carbon-footprint reasons. Let's say they want to serve applesauce to their kids next Wednesday. They need, I don't know, let's say 20,000 pounds of apples. We need 10 employees and a place in the food hub to make applesauce. So while it's not a high-tech job, there are certainly people who could use those jobs. 

Then you have the beverage aspect of that. We have the Bourbon Trail out in the surrounding areas and now the Urban Bourbon Trail with tasting stops around the city. Moonshine University is part of our beverage hub. [Moonshine University is based at a distilling center in downtown Louisville and offers workshops for people who want to open micro-distilleries.] It creates a real interesting vibe in the city. We have food-and-art programs, food-and-music programs. It makes us unique, and you always want your city to be unique. 

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