Almost two years into his term, it’s clear that Mayor Greg Fischer has made regionalism one of the hallmarks of his administration.
In addition to reaching across the river to Southern Indiana, Fischer is looking down Interstate-64 to Lexington.
While still somewhat conceptual, he and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray have launched the Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement (BEAM), which they hope will create a super-region of advanced manufacturing anchored by the two cities with Southern Indiana a key component of the Louisville anchor.
While past Louisville mayoral administrations have paid lip service to the idea of regionalism, cooperation has for the most part been seriously lacking. Instead of working together, the greater Louisville region has spent a whole lot more time fighting and competing against itself.
In that regard alone, Fischer’s embrace of Southern Indiana and Lexington has been notably refreshing.
The purpose of the BEAM initiative is to leverage the strengths of both Louisville and Lexington, synergize these strengths and create the scale merit necessary to compete in the global marketplace. With global competitiveness being a key tenant of the concept, it would be wise to see what other super-regions are being created elsewhere.
Perhaps the most ambitious initiative in the world can be found in the Chinese province of Guangdong, which abuts the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macao on China’s southeast coast. The province boasts nine separate cities of over 1.5 million residents, anchored by manufacturing hubs Guangzhou and Shenzhen, and a total population of 110 million.
It was here Chinese economic reforms began in the late 1970s and early ’80s with the establishment of Special Economic Zones to open the formerly isolationist economy to world trade.
The region has not disappointed, producing an annual gross domestic product of $839 billion. (For perspective, California produces the highest annual state GDP at $1.95 trillion and Vermont the smallest at $26.5 billion; Kentucky ranks right around the median at $164.5 billion).
City planners now have a vision to merge these nine cities into one mega-city of 42 million people, integrating separate transportation, telecommunications and water infrastructure to reduce duplication and increase efficiency.
Twenty-nine new rail lines will eventually connect all the population centers and points in between. A university cluster, dubbed the Guangzhou Higher Education Mega Center, has already been established and has seen 10 universities set up satellite campuses to improve collaboration and cross-pollination of research.
City leaders in these cities realize the Chinese business model based on low-cost labor is not sustainable. They are attempting to graduate the region – and China as a whole – away from dependence on low-cost manufacturing and into an innovation economy, in much the same way the region led China out of its economic backwardness and into an economic powerhouse over the past 30 years.
Whether it works or not remains to be seen as local turf protection runs strong in the Chinese bureaucracy. Regardless, this type of ambition must be saluted. Given the demographics and economic make-up of Guangdong compared to Kentucky, this is not an example Louisville can follow.
However, there are some key features that can be borrowed.
First, Louisville needs to think bigger when it comes to regional cooperation. Instead of just Lexington, Louisville and Southern Indiana, why not incorporate Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky into the BEAM initiative? This would not be easy, but it should at least be on the table for discussion. A notable weakness for both Louisville and Kentucky in the global economy is a lack of scale. This would help to partially overcome this weakness.
Second, consider emulating the Guangdong higher education cluster somewhere in the Louisville-Lexington-Cincinnati triangle and invite regional universities to establish satellite campuses to share resources and work together.
Perhaps this region’s greatest weakness is the lack of an elite university. While a regional academic cluster may never morph into a Research Triangle Park à la North Carolina, it could go a long way toward consolidating and leveraging financial resources now often in direct competition with one another.
Mayor Fischer obviously understands the role regionalism will play in Louisville’s economic future.
The BEAM initiative is a great start, but only a start.
He needs to keep pushing this initiative and consider expanding it to make it even bigger and better.