Lexington, Louisville officials set priorities for collaboration after Pittsburgh trip

Tom Eblen
Tom Eblen

The best way to get to know someone is to travel together. That was the idea behind the joint trip to Pittsburgh in May by 200 members of Commerce Lexington and 100 members of Greater Louisville Inc.

Kentucky's two big cities have always been separated by much more than 75 miles of asphalt. But these days, cities, states and regions that want to succeed economically can no longer afford to let cultural differences, petty jealousies and college basketball rivalries keep them from working together.

The trip went well. But the big question was this: Would there be any follow-up?

Commerce Lexington's trips are sometimes criticized as junkets because the travelers come home, go on summer vacation and never get around to following up on most of the city-improvement ideas they gathered.

Lexington and Louisville officials said they are determined that that won't happen this time. Last Thursday, summer vacation ended, and it was time to get to work. A Commerce Lexington/GLI steering committee met all day and, that evening, announced follow-up plans to the trip's participants at a reception in Louisville's 21C Museum Hotel. The attendees included both cities' mayors.

The two chambers of commerce announced plans to form a joint task force to follow up on seven top priorities and to hire a full-time staff person to drive the process. Most of those priorities were identified and ranked by the 300 travelers during a session in Pittsburgh.

Top priorities include exploring the feasibility of light passenger rail between Lexington and Louisville, and creating Bidwell Training Centers in both cities. Bidwell is a remarkably successful job-training center for poor people in Pittsburgh. Founder Bill Strickland's presentation about it during the trip had almost everyone in the room teary-eyed and cheering.

Strickland is now working with other cities to replicate Bidwell's success. Talks began this summer about seeing whether the concept could mesh with a Fayette County Public Schools project to develop an agribusiness vocational training center on Leestown Road.

Other top priorities include the cities working together to promote Kentucky's horse industry, and to pursue legislation that would allow the cities to have a local-option sales tax. The cities say they need the extra money to provide the infrastructure necessary for business to flourish.

Presidents Bob Quick of Commerce Lexington and Joe Reagan of GLI said afterward that such taxing authority probably would have to be done in the context of overall state tax reform, which is long overdue. "Some of these things will take some time to build the right coalitions," Reagan said.

The two chambers and city governments already work well together, but closer ties are needed between them and Northern Kentucky, Quick and Reagan said. The so-called Golden Triangle has been Kentucky's growth engine for a couple of decades, and it will become even more important in the future.

But, Reagan said, "The last thing we want to do is pit urban against rural. We have to look at the big picture."

Jerry Abramson, who is retiring after 21 years as Louisville's mayor to be Gov. Steve Beshear's running mate next year, said the cities' most important challenge will be convincing the rest of the state that investment in the Golden Triangle benefits the entire state. That's because much of the tax revenue and economic development created by Lexington, Louisville and Northern Kentucky flows throughout Kentucky.

"As we develop our strategies, we must take into account how it's going to positively affect the other citizens of the state," Abramson said. "How does it play in Paducah? What's in it for Hazard?"