Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend on the big screen at the 2018 Leadership Louisville Luncheon at the Omni | Photo by Mickey Meece

South Bend, Ind., is synonymous with the University of Notre Dame, but technically, the campus sits just outside city limits, said its mayor, Pete Buttigieg.

Encouraging the campus to come into town to eat and drink and shop was enough to suffice for what Buttigieg (pronounced BOOT edge-edge) called the city’s College Town 1.0 strategy to engage with students, faculty and staff.

For a College Town 2.0 strategy, Buttigieg said, the city wanted to reach those same students, faculty and staff at the substance of their work, and that effort paid dividends in how South Bend approached its troubled sewers.

Did someone say sewers? Buttigieg was the keynote speaker at Wednesday’s 1,000-strong Leadership Louisville Luncheon at the Omni Hotel. After his speech, Mayor Greg Fischer had a side note for the influential crowd.

“We have a sewer problem,” he said, adding that Louisville MSD had a critical repair plan in place that needed a rate increase to carry out. For that to happen, Metro Council would have to approve it, he said, nudging the crowd to reach out council members to make the case.

MSD can raise its rates less than 7 percent annually without council approval, which it did this summer. MSD has repeatedly asked the city council to be allowed to raise its rates beyond 7 percent, but city council members have rebuffed those efforts so far.

But back to South Bend’s sewers. It turns out the College of Engineering at Notre Dame was working on a smart sewer system, which the city is now testing. A sensor system can sense flow and divert water to prevent flooding, Buttigieg said.

Suddenly, via a partnership with a world-class university, South Bend was able to cut its $1 billion sewer compliance problem in half, he said, thus saving each man, woman and child in the city $5,000.

The true test of a great college town is having a two-way relationship, he added.

For his keynote, Buttigieg touched on education, automation and millennial leadership. He became mayor at age 29 and was reelected to a second term. According to his biography, he’s a Harvard graduate, Rhodes Scholar, Afghanistan veteran and counterintelligence agent for the U.S. Navy, musician, businessman, and polyglot (speaks seven languages).

“Mayor Pete, as he’s called in South Bend, represents what a newer generation of leaders looks like,” Leadership Louisville said in its bio.

In 2014, The Washington Post called Buttigieg, “The most interesting mayor you’ve never heard of,” but he has gained national prominence since then, including a Vows column in The New York Times when he got married in June.

Buttigieg, right, was joined by Mayor Fischer and Amy Liu of Brookings. | Photo by Mickey Meece

After his talk, Buttigieg was joined by Mayor Fischer and Amy Liu of Brookings for a panel discussion on how leaders in business, government and civic sectors are working together to drive innovation and economic growth in a way that boosts productivity and living standards.

In particular, Liu wondered how Midwestern cities like South Bend and Louisville could stay relevant amid changing demographics and the rise of automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning.

In a slide presentation, Liu suggested the prosperity of both cities depended on if they could emerge from their industrial pasts. For example, in 2016, nearly 12 percent of South Bend’s workforce was in manufacturing, down from some 26 percent in 1970. For Louisville, it was nearly 10 percent in 2016, down from about 28 percent.

Liu said both cities remain at the epicenter of automation. Since 2010, South Bend has experienced a 156 percent growth in robots per worker, ranking 12th among large metros. Louisville has had 330 percent growth in that time, ranking fourth among large metros, Brookings found in its 2017 study, “Where the robots are.”

While these two cities are making progress, Liu said, “This region of the country is not out of the woods yet.”

Mickey Meece
Mickey Meece is a native of Louisville, a Kentucky Colonel and a graduate of the University of Kentucky. She worked at The New York Times for 13 years in various capacities on the business and features desk, including assistant to the editor, small business editor, weekend editor and staff editor. Mickey served as executive editor of USAA Magazine, the Money magazine for military families, and was an editor for the American Banker newspaper, where she reported on the credit card industry.