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Mayor Fischer’s State of the City address: ‘There is no standing still; we have to play to win’

by Terry Boyd

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Mayor Fischer exhorted about 400 Rotarians Thursday afternoon to lobby the General Assembly for a local-option sales tax. (Click to see full size.)

Typically, state of the city addresses focus on big accomplishments.

Not this one.

Metro Mayor Greg Fischer’s State of the City address Thursday at Churchill Downs was more a blunt call to action.

Instead of recapping accomplishments during three years in office, Fischer exhorted the crowd to abandon parochialism and embrace becoming a globally competitive city along with Austin, Nashville and Oklahoma City.

“We cannot limit ourselves with cowardly short-term thinking,” he said.

In a 30-minute talk in the Triple Crown Room, Fischer appealed to about 400 Louisville Rotarians to lobby the Kentucky General Assembly to pass the constitutional amendment necessary to institute a local-option sales tax.

The mayor has been advocating a local-option tax under what he has labeled LIFT, or Local Investments for Transformation, since December 2012.

In Fischer’s often humorous State of the City, there was more than a hint of “we’re this close,” citing strong public support – as well as bipartisan General Assembly support – for giving cities and counties the right to institute a 1-cent, local-option sales tax.

He put in stark terms what’s at stake: Citizens and the legislature have the power to decide whether Louisville becomes a static, no-growth city, or joins the Austins and Nashvilles as a city of the future.

Fischer quoted Jim Welch, Brown-Forman vice chairman, as having told him how important a vital downtown and other civic amenities are in attracting top talent to the Louisville-based global spirits conglomerate.

“We have assets … we have momentum. But the truth is, we have to have the desire to get to the next level of cities. We have to up our game,” Fischer said.

If the General Assembly, which is in session through April, approves a constitutional amendment, Louisville would have the potential to raise as much as $130 million per year. Local-option sales taxes are limited in duration, and all proceeds must be dedicated to specific projects.

Fischer pointed out that $130 million was roughly the cost of the celebrated Waterfront Park network, though the real estate parcels took 30 years to assemble and redevelop.

“What if voters had ($130 million) to invest in projects of that size every single year?”

“Everybody says, ‘Young fellow, why are you so impatient?’” drawing a round of laughter. He followed up by saying that taking 30 years to complete the waterfront is no longer an option because competitor cities are advancing faster than Louisville.

During his administration, Fischer said, the city has moved forward, with declining violent crime, as well as a declining budget deficit. Louisville has recouped jobs lost during the Great Recession at a faster rate than most American cities.

His administration is now focused on building economic development pillars in long-term care, entrepreneurism, the food and beverage sector, and high-tech manufacturing, Fischer said. But he called it “a Kentucky thing” to say the city and state is doing better than one year or five years ago.

“Great cities don’t compare themselves to themselves,” he said as photos of Louisville’s people and projects flashed on digital screens.

As he often does when pitching the local sales tax initiative, Fischer brought up the great strides Oklahoma City has made with such a tax. But during the State of the City address, he framed his pitch in the context of an increasingly urbanized world where people don’t follow jobs – companies locate in cities that attract talent.

Once, no companies wanted to locate in Oklahoma City because corporate executives couldn’t imagine living there, Fischer said.

Now, after transforming themselves by using the local tax option to invest in infrastructure projects, cities such as Oklahoma City and Nashville “are the cities we’re competing against,” with both quality of life and quality of opportunities.

Oklahoma has raised $2 billion through its local-option sales tax with the private sector following up with $5 billion in investments, Fischer said.

“That’s in the most conservative Republican state. That’s job growth. That’s investment. That’s playing to win.

“Don’t underestimate your power as a citizen,” he said, in conclusion.

“Let’s seize the moment. Let’s move Frankfort forward.”

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  • Paige

    Hello Louisville from OKC!! GO FOR IT!! Find the right projects for your city that meet
    your goals and aspirations. Make sure citizens understand the projects and what
    the results will be – vision cast!! Promise open oversight by a citizen
    board. The MOST important element though to bring it to pass and keep it
    going? Team spirit. A “we’re in this together and we ARE going to
    make this happen” attitude. It’s an intangible that is key. Also,
    having a permanent tax imposed on you and voting for a temporary tax are two
    very different things! One final thing. Yes, it took 2-3 years after the
    vote to really see things happening. But then this crazy snowball effect
    happened with private developments, and now there’s so much happening it’s
    truly hard to keep up. GO FOR IT!