Courtesy Greater Louisville Project

Fifteen years ago, Louisville was a year removed from its momentous merger with Jefferson County. On Tuesday, the Greater Louisville Project released its 2018 Competitive City Update: Fifteen Years Beyond Merger, which examines how Metro Louisville fared against its peer cities.

Ben Reno-Weber

There has been significant progress in closing some gaps, according to Ben Reno-Weber, project director of GLP, who told Insider that his takeaway in examining comparisons with 16 peer cities was that “it’s easy for us to say we’re not in the top-tier, and we’re not failing, but it’s really important to acknowledge that we could be in a lot worse place than we are.”

Indeed, the top-line summary shows that the city has avoided its worst fears post-merger, but that it has yet to achieve its highest goals.

In 2013, Jeff Wachter of the Abell Foundation offered a 10-year perspective on the city-county merger and noted that opponents feared in part “rising taxes, an unwieldy bureaucracy, and a loss of political strength for African-Americans.”

Proponents, he wrote, argued “that a merger would increase government efficiency, help spur economic development, and create psychological benefits based on being a larger city (particularly when reminded that the merged Lexington-Fayette Urban County, KY, had surpassed Louisville in the 2000 census as the largest city in the state).”

He concluded that 10 years in, the merger offered mixed results.

GLP also finds a mixed bag. “This report illustrates that over the last 15 years, Louisville has realized neither its worst fears nor its highest aspirations,” Reno-Weber said at a news conference on Monday.

For its report, the independent, nonpartisan initiative supported by the Community Foundation of Louisville, the James Graham Brown Foundation and others, drew on key community metrics to track progress in education, jobs, quality of place and health.

Findings show that Louisville has kept abreast of peer cities with improvements in most of those areas but that “challenges remain in improving health outcomes and closing persistent equity gaps across sectors.”

During the news conference on Monday, Mayor Greg Fischer said: “Our peer cities are investing hundreds of millions in streetscapes, parks and transportation, whereas we are trying to get by on the cheap. If we want to make progress, we’ve got to do more.”

In assessing the impact of GLP’s work and Louisville’s progress, Stephen Reily, director of the Speed Art Museum and a local philanthropist, told Insider, “We didn’t just rest on our laurels, we made the city more competitive compared to our peers.”

GLP was integral in helping get to the “how we measure success,” Reily added, by offering objective data and showing “how we work together to work toward shared results.”

In its overview of the 15-year assessment, GLP found that in education, the percentage of Louisville residents with degrees has grown overall at a faster pace than most peer cities. Since 2010, the goal has been for 40 percent to hold bachelor’s degrees. The city has fallen short of that goal, but GLP said the achievement gap between white and black students closed.

Mayor Fischer said, “If we get education right, everything else will follow.”

In jobs and quality of place, the report shows that Louisville’s median earnings have continued to recover from the Great Recession and are slightly above the peer city mean. “Fears from the time of the merger that Jefferson County would hollow out as residents moved to the surrounding counties have largely not materialized,” the report noted.

“If we want to be the sort of community that can attract and retain a quality workforce, we need to address issues in an interconnected and fundamental way,” Reno-Weber said during his presentation. “If we keep doing what we have been doing, we’ll keep getting the same outcomes.”

Kent Oyler, president and CEO of Greater Louisville Inc., was among a group of speakers invited to give a call to action. Given that it’s March Madness, he said, think of Team Louisville as being down 15 points at half-time. “We’ve got to quit thinking this is an intrasquad scrimmage.”

Homeownership is higher than most peers, but white residents are more likely than black residents to own homes.

Courtesy Greater Louisville Project

In health, the city has the highest rate of insured residents among its peers, GLP found, but the city had a consistent decline in measured health outcomes since 2008. “Because health impacts every other GLP success metric,” the report said, “poor health outcomes represent a significant challenge in creating a thriving community.”

Recently, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released its 2019 county health rankings and in Kentucky, Jefferson ranked 34 in terms of health outcomes. And on Tuesday, US News & World Report released its Healthiest Communities rankings. The magazine lists 500 communities, going down to the county level. Kentucky’s Oldham (#98), Spencer (#400) and Boone (#485) counties are on the list, but Jefferson County is not.

GLP will take its data, which is available on its website, to local organizations to foster collaboration. Reno-Weber concluded his presentation to a packed house by saying: “We have not done badly, we can and want to do better. How we are going to do that is to put interconnectedness at the center of what we do.”

This story has been updated with comments from Mayor Greg Fischer, Ben Reno-Weber and Kent Oyler of GLI .

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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.