Monday, March 23, 2009

What Louisville should do

Economic development is tricky. How exactly do you set your city apart when almost every other city is trying to do exactly the same thing that you are doing? Every city has something unique about it. Indy has the Indy 500. Louisville has the Derby. Nashville has country music. Those are very unique things that each cities leverages to its advantage. However, it's not enough. You still need more. You have to be diversified. Especially in our increasingly global economy. Cities are no longer just competing against each other for business HQ. They are also competing for talent. Talent that isn't afraid to move at the drop of the dime from city to city or even country to country. 

According to Greater Louisville Inc, the metro chamber of commerce, Their focus is on building Louisville niche growth markets. Logistics and distribution, and health related enterprises, and  entrepreneurism. Health related enterprises would be things like going after the biomedical industry. Entrepreneurism is pretty much like it sounds. making it easy for people to start small to medium sized businesses. Which is a pretty good strategy. Louisville is known for being a place where its pretty easy to start your own biz and be pretty successful. Tumbleweed, Papa John's, Ralleys, Chi Chi's, KFC, and many more had their starts in Louisville. 

Going after the Biomedical industry is going to be an uphill struggle. The hardest part is that we just don't have a prestigious top tier research university that would attract the type of talent needed to keep something like that going. The university of Louisville has come a long way. The medical school has grown by leaps and bounds. The number and size of the National Institute of Health of grants have grown every year. However, we still lag far behind our competitor cities and regions. Louisville's biggest problem is that the state of Kentucky will never adequately fund its universities.  The other problem with going after biomed is how many jobs would it actually create. I'm sure there would be a lot of jobs for scientist, but what about the average folk. Will people with regular degrees be able to take advantage of the growing Biomed sector? I know the high paying jobs will do a lot for the cities coffers, but what about the vast majority of the populace? The other downside is that most biotech firms seem to almost always get taken over by Big Pharma. Usually once that happens Big Pharma buys all of the intellectual property dissolves the company and moves on. What would Louisville have left? The guys who started it would make a killing, but what about the city in the long run? I'm not saying this isn't a worthwhile goal. It is a very worthwhile goal. It's just going to require a lot of work, and take decades before we can really start to reap the benefits.  

Louisville should keep pursuing those economic development strategies. I just think that Louisville should just take advantage of its other strengths. Strengths, I think once properly cultivated, could lead to greater prosperity for the city. It would also help to Louisville to stand out amongst its peers. What are those strengths. Simple. The Arts. 

Louisville is a quirky artsy town. Why not take advantage of that. The city with the help of Greater Louisville Inc.,  should start a film commission. Like most film commissions they should try and recruit hollywood films to be shot in and around Louisville. However, I think their biggest function should be to cultivate the local talent that's already here.The film commission should educate the venture club (local meeting of venture capitalist in Louisville) about investing in low budget movies. Then educate local filmmakers on how to present their ideas to the venture club. The Film commission would keep track of all of the movies made in Louisville so we know just how much the local film industry is contributing to the local economy. I would also like the commission to sell locally made movies on it's website. This would be a way for the commission and local filmmakers to make a little bit of money. The commission would also fund education programs for youth. You always need to groom the next generation of talent. 

As you can tell I'm pretty high on the local filmmaker angle.  I think this would be a natural fit for Louisville and something that can honestly be done in short order. The reason I would concentrate most of the commissions energy on local films is because I think they offer the greatest return on investment.  If you're lucky you might attract one medium budget hollywood film to your city. A film that has the budget of say $40 Million. However, most of that money will not be spent in Louisville. They might higher drives, rent some homes, get hotels, catering, and the like. But as soon as filming is wrapped up they are gone. That's not a bad thing, and if Louisville could do it great. However, if Louisville could produce 10 $1 million dollar low budget movies a year the money would have a greater impact in the community. First, most of the people who worked on the film will most likely be from Louisville. Their wages would stay here. Second, you will be building up a film workforce that will make attracting bigger budget movies easier since you would have built up a talent base. It's a win win. Thirdly, the education barrier isn't as high and the pay is usually above average.

I also think the city needs to get more serious about cultivating local businesses. 4th street live is great. The Center City project looks cool. However, Louisville has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to prop up an out of town company. Why not put several million dollars in a fund to try and lure local businesses to finish building out the rest of 4th street. You could make the money forgivable loans up to $250,000. If you could add a lot of local flavor to say several national chains I think it would do a lot for the city. you can go to any city and go to a HardRock Cafe. You can't get Wick's pizza everywhere.

Louisville should also try and become the green capital of the Midwest. We should have the most LEED certified buildings in our region. We should have more bike lanes, houses with solar panels, and first rate mass transit. While this may not be "economic development" per se it does create a progressive environment. That progressive environment is what will attract the younger (and young at heart) talent. People want to believe that they can make a difference in their hometowns. Even if they they really don't have voice they need to believe that they do. Being a progressive town that is a quirky artsy place gives people the feeling that they can make a change or try something different. If a town can tolerate and even cultivate it's funky, quirky artsy folks, then it will also do the same for the straight and narrow guys. It makes everybody feel like they can fit and that they do have a place. More importantly, it makes people like you have their back. Which means, that I'm not as afraid to try something new because I have support. 

This might be the biggest economic development tool Louisville has. Making people feel like they belong. 

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