LOUISVILLE — Anyone who has lived in Kentucky very long knows Lexington and Louisville are separated by much more than 75 miles of Interstate 64 and a blue vs. red college sports rivalry.
The state's two largest cities have always been insular in ways that no longer make economic sense. That is because success in a 21st-century global economy can be as much about collaboration as competition — and a lot more about regions than cities.
Kentucky's business and civic leaders have been slowly coming around to this idea. But the election of new mayors with similar backgrounds, outlooks and goals could be a game-changer.
Lexington's new mayor, Jim Gray, and Louisville's new mayor, Greg Fischer, take office this week. They are both 50-something Democrats who begin their first executive jobs in government with experience as chief executives of creative, entrepreneurial and globally focused companies. If anybody gets the new economic reality that cities face, they should.
"I do think it's a new day for both cities," Fischer said. "Having mayors that understand that should be a plus."
I know Gray, 57, pretty well. But I hadn't met Fischer until last month, when I drove to Louisville to interview him at his no-frills campaign headquarters in a converted bourbon warehouse east of downtown.
Fischer, 52, was born and raised in Louisville. He graduated from Trinity High School before heading to Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Fischer said he helped start or invest in about 20 companies, beginning at age 25 with SerVend, which makes automated ice and beverage dispensers still used in many restaurants.
Long active in the community, the married father of four hasn't been in politics long. He lost the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in 2008 to Bruce Lunsford, who then failed to unseat Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. Fischer succeeds Louisville's longest-serving mayor, Jerry Abramson, who stepped down to become Gov. Steve Beshear's re-election running mate.
Fischer said he first met Gray, the CEO of his family's construction company, about four years ago. Fischer wanted to pick his brain on behalf of a company he partially owns, Dant Clayton Corp., which builds sports stadiums.
"Little did we know four years ago that we would be sitting across the table in different capacities now," Fischer said. "I enjoy Jim's personality, his optimism, his team-building approach. He's got good energy to him."
Fischer said he hopes to have a regular dialogue with Gray. "We have been texting back and forth, but haven't had substantive conversations yet," he said.
Fischer's ideas and philosophy sound strikingly similar to Gray's.
Like Gray, Fischer's top priority is creating jobs. While there have been some encouraging announcements recently by major employers such as Ford Motor Co. and General Electric, Louisville has lost more than 24,000 jobs in the past decade, mainly in manufacturing.
Fischer said he plans to focus on industry sectors in which Louisville is already strong, such as transportation logistics and health care companies that focus on long-term and aging care. Partnering with Lexington and other nearby cities also will be a priority.
The two cities' economies tend to complement rather than compete with each other. And there are many things they share, such as a central location and auto manufacturing and supply industries.
Those rival sports teams are attached to major research universities that could play a bigger role in developing long-term knowledge jobs in Kentucky, Fischer noted. "People talk about the rivalry, but I see that as an advantage, because we're always talking to each other," he said.
"It makes all the sense in the world for Louisville and Lexington — Frankfort's obviously there, and maybe Elizabethtown — to work together as a region to be viewed as relevant on an international scale," he said. "We've got to be thinking globally now when we think about competition. We've got to be able to overcome any parochial interests or baggage and look forward."
The two cities also must work with Northern Kentucky to convince the rural-dominated General Assembly that what is good for urban areas is good for the entire state, because they produce most of Kentucky's jobs and taxes.
Fischer would like to see legislation allowing local-option sales taxes to allow Kentucky cities to be more competitive with similar-sized cities in other states. But just as important is comprehensive state tax reform that will encourage businesses to set up shop here rather than elsewhere. "Right now," he said, "our tax code is not our friend."
As Louisville and Lexington develop long-term strategic plans, they should pay attention to how those complement each other. "Then let's create a joint plan between our cities," he said.
"We are in a natural position to be more allies than what we are," Fischer said of Louisville and Lexington. "We're just an hour away. If we were living in a large metropolitan area, that would be the average commute, or less, for a lot of people."