A REGION UNITING?
Optimism is in rich supply in the “Big Lou” these days, and why not?
Louisville, Ky., is rapidly reclaiming its waterfront, replacing scrap yards with parkland. New condos and historic restorations are awakening a once-sleepy downtown, and a new skyscraper is on the way.
Employers are investing, and how. Last year, UPS announced a $1 billion expansion of its distribution hub at Louisville International Airport, promising 5,000 new jobs.
Local leaders point to the projects and progress as testimonials to their metro government, America’s first city-county merger in 30 years.
“It gave me the chance to set an agenda for the whole region,” said Jerry Abramson, Louisville’s outgoing mayor and an architect of the merger. “If you start pitching yourself as a region, if you start seeing yourself as a region, you can be very, very successful.”
Regional cooperation, Abramson and others say, made complex projects and far-sighted planning go down as smooth as the bourbon that famously flows from local distilleries.
Many black leaders find the price hard to swallow. A bigger, busier Louisville is also notably whiter, and that equates to less black political power. Regionalism advocates took advantage of a voting system that allowed them to roll over black opposition.
Yet representatives of struggling regions flock to northern Kentucky to see a model of reinvention. As a fourth installment in its “Region Uniting?” series, The Plain Dealer looks at what the blueprint for “America’s newest city” might offer to our own struggling region.
Are there lessons we might learn? Strategies we might follow? At the very least, does Louisville’s daring move offer our own advocates for regional cooperation reasons to keep trying?
In the beginning
With a bold vote in 2000, residents of Louisville and surrounding Jefferson County narrowly approved a city-county merger that, when completed in 2003, catapulted Louisville from 67th place on the list of America’s largest cities to 16th.
Leading up to the vote, advocates for regional government faced many of the same obstacles and resistance seen in Greater Cleveland.
Leaders in the 90-plus suburbs didn’t want to surrender control or adopt the city’s burdens. Urban black leaders feared that a merger would dilute their city-based political power.
But unlike here, schools in Louisville and its suburbs had merged into one district decades earlier. The city and county also agreed in 1985 to merge several city and county departments, including planning and economic development.
And unlike here, state lawmakers in Kentucky, pushed by the Louisville business community, got involved in a big way. In 1998, they named a task force of all city and county elected officials, 56 in all, to design a new merger plan.
As a proposal came together, key leadership stepped forward to sell it. Kentucky’s senior U.S. senator, Mitch McConnell, joined the pro-merger campaign and vowed to “finish the job.”
Business groups financed a $1 million “Say Yes to Unity” campaign that left little to chance. When late tracking polls identified women aged 24 to 35 as anti-merger, TV and radio ads stressed that merger would attract jobs to “keep our babies at home.”
Merger advocates also dodged a contentious issue. Suburbs were allowed to remain independent. They could keep their police, government and recreation programs, yet still vote for Metro mayor and council. Suburban opposition faded, and blacks lost a key anti-merger ally.
Merger planners tried to soften black opposition. They carved out voting districts that ensured five “safe seats” for blacks on a 26-member Metro Council, in proportion to the black population.
They pledged that city services would not be cut to match lower levels of services in the county. And they stressed that a metro city, united behind one mayor, could attract jobs for everyone.
Still, Louisville Urban League President Benjamin Richmond stood almost alone urging blacks to accept a smaller share of a growing pie. Young black professionals rallied to his side, but every elected black official in the city and county opposed merger. About 70 percent of black voters rejected the idea.
But in the end, black voters lacked the numbers to defeat a plan that needed only a single countywide majority vote to re-create the government.
“Merger dissolved the African-American power base,” said Darryl Owens, a black Kentucky state representative from “old city” Louisville. “It lessens our political influence. Most people like to have influence. That makes sure your issues get addressed.”
Lessons for here
Experts say a Louisville-style merger could not easily happen in a strong home-rule state like Ohio. Cuyahoga County would need the endorsement of every community involved, including Cleveland, which is nearly 60 percent black.
And so high is black mistrust of regional government, experts say, that no black-majority city in America has ever merged with its home county. Even basic regionalism strategies, like tax sharing and regional planning, face higher hurdles in regions of great diversity.
Last month, a leading black business group in Northeast Ohio, the President’s Council, released a review of regionalism that advises tiptoeing into the uncharted waters.
The report acknowledges the need for regional cooperation but insists that century-old government structures be left untouched.
The study, directed by John Powell, an Ohio State University social scientist who studies regionalism and its impact on minority communities, trumpets a theme: Equity. It calls for regional magnet schools, tax sharing and anti-sprawl measures.
Powell said the authors were writing to their audience. Any mention of consolidation would kill discussion in the black community, he said, just as a suggestion to regionalize schools would scare off Solon, Brecksville and Rocky River.
“First, you have to build some confidence,” he said.
Barbara Shanklin understands the trepidation, and the possibilities. She opposed merger as a black member of the Louisville City Council and now sits beside representatives of suburbs and farm country on the Metro Council.
With regional resources pooled, her majority-black district suddenly has money for youth programs it once could not afford, Shanklin said. And it benefits from something she never imagined.
At times, when her discretionary money has run low, representative of other, wealthier districts passed resources her way. She has done the same for others.
“When we first merged, everybody looked out for their own area,” she said. “Now, people on this council help each other. It’s, like, regionalism.”