Mayors of Lexington and Louisville team up on initiative to boost jobs

Lexington, Louisville mayors hope to lure advanced manufacturing to corridor

bfortune@herald-leader.comAugust 12, 2011 

LOUISVILLE — At the 2011 Leadership Louisville luncheon at the Galt House East on Thursday, the mayors of Lexington and Louisville went before more than 1,000 leaders to pitch their vision for a regional economic development initiative to improve the cities' competitiveness in advanced manufacturing.

Mayors Jim Gray and Greg Fischer pointed to the Toyota plant in Georgetown and the Ford and GE plants in Louisville as evidence that the state's two largest urban areas already are a center of advanced manufacturing, but it can do more.

Over the next 18 months, a detailed business plan will be developed for a new super-region that will stretch from Louisville to Lexington. Businessman Jim Host, who recently wrapped up work overseeing development of the KFC Yum Center in downtown Louisville, will lead the project.

The two mayors will appoint a committee to work with Host. Host said he expects the committee to start meeting by mid-September.

For five years while working on the Yum Center, Host drove from Lexington to Louisville every morning and back home at night. Host said he learned a great deal about how Louisville works, and it only bolstered an idea he had for many years that the Lexington-Louisville corridor should function like the Dallas-Fort Worth corridor.

In a small state like Kentucky, it didn't make any sense for the two largest cities not to work together, he said.

The Brookings Institution, a non-profit public policy research firm in Washington, D.C., will assist Host's group by providing trend analyses, policy ideas and specific practices that help metropolitan areas compete and prosper. Starting 18 months ago, Brookings worked with Seattle and Puget Sound, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Northeastern Ohio on economic business plans that were released in April.

The firm is now working with Memphis, Phoenix and Syracuse, N.Y., in addition to Louisville and Lexington.

Fischer will come to Lexington on Wednesday, and the two mayors will discuss regional cooperation at a Commerce Lexington luncheon.

Gray and Fischer, both new to the jobs, became acquainted this year when Fischer invited Gray to Louisville for the University of Kentucky-University of Louisville basketball game.

Fischer said cooperation between the two cities makes sense because large economic investment firms are looking, more and more, to locate in urban areas.

Separately, the populations of Louisville and Lexington are limited in size, but the super-region boasts more than 2 million people, greatly increasing its attractiveness as a labor market, Fischer said.

Economic growth in the region helps the entire state, both mayors said. Lexington and Louisville combined contribute about half of Kentucky's gross domestic product, Fischer said.

To have Kentucky's two largest cities work together "is a new way of thinking. Governments and cities are not accustomed to collaborating," Gray said. But working together, the metropolitan areas can accomplish far more in terms of growing their economies than trying to go it alone, he said.

Asked for specifics about "growing advanced manufacturing," Amy Liu, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution, said it was hard to say, since the work is just getting started. "We're not sure at this point what an advanced manufacturing initiative is. We don't know exactly what the strengths are, what the opportunity for growth is, where we want to take it, how that compares to our competitors," she said.

The business plan will get down to details, Liu said. It will include a budget, a staffing plan and a division of labor among organizations in the region, spelling out the role of technology, the role of schools and universities to work with companies and the role of community colleges to train the work force.

The plan has to be developed "down to this granular level or it will never be carried out," she said.

Reach Beverly Fortune at (859) 231-3251 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3251

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