“Has anything been particularly surprising?” I asked, reminding the mayor that he’d never governed anything before.
“People treat you much differently when you’re mayor than when you’re a candidate,” he said with a laugh, warming to the interview.
“Well, all your jokes are funnier.” Here, I laughed. He added, “I’m surprised at how closely some people follow what the mayor does. . . .The anonymity is gone.”
The conversation soon moved to job creation, which was the centerpiece of the mayor’s campaign and remains a pressing issue as Louisville’s unemployment rate still hovers well above the national average (11 percent in February versus 9.5 percent nationally for the same time period, according to the Kentucky Office of Employment and Training).
“The most immediate way you can create jobs is through construction projects,” the mayor told me. He expressed some optimism on that jobs-creation front, pointing to the potential of the Ohio River Bridges Project, a new VA hospital, the long-stalled Museum Plaza skyscraper and the planned eight-story Nucleus Innovation Center in east downtown.
He next mentioned “major corporate growth around our key economic clusters,” identifying two such clusters: advanced manufacturing, specifically in the auto industry, and lifelong wellness and aging care. “When Ford completes the assembly plant out here (later this year), it’s going to be the most advanced automotive-manufacturing facility in the world,” Fischer said. “And if we perform the way I know we can perform, that can lead to even more job growth out there, hopefully another thousand jobs.”
The lifelong wellness and aging-care industry, the mayor said, is something Louisville could be “best in the world at.” Rolling his hands back over each other, he told me that this industry could create “tens of thousands of jobs that are in a good place demographically.”
“Are we going to be able to create as broad of a middle class in the 21st century as we had in the 20th with the manufacturing jobs that we had?” I asked.
“Well, I mean I think this is the key issue that our country should be discussing right now,” he said, moving his head from side to side as if to underline the gravity of the problem. “This is why this area of advanced manufacturing is so critical and that we figure out as a country what the next stage of the manufacturing revolution looks like.” He told me that a crucial element would be developing a more versatile manufacturing workforce: “What that versatile worker can contribute, then, is a higher level of productivity, and we’ve got to have that higher level of productivity to compete against our lower-cost competitors outside of the country.”
The mayor admitted to some frustration over the Whiskey Row controversy, where he has agreed to let developer Todd Blue tear down a block of historic Main Street buildings between First and Second streets after 90 days — a period that ends May 9th — in exchange for dropping a lawsuit against the city. Fischer said that the settlement prevented the judge in the case from issuing an emergency demolition order and will ultimately preserve the facades, though if torn down they could stay down for years. In the 90-day interval, Fischer and the city government are working to help another group buy five of Blue’s seven buildings. But that hasn’t satisfied preservationists, who have been let in on the lawsuit.
“It’s frustrating that people don’t want to get the facts about what took place,” the mayor said. “But the facts are, we had a deadline because of the federal court decision. I inherited this situation and had to deal with it.”
Whiskey Row is exactly the kind of sticky issue that can bog a public official down in what Fischer called “the swamp.” “You know, most people just show up and fight the battle every day, ’cause there’s all kinds of problems comin’ at you and you go home, exhausted; you’re not quite sure what you got done, but the day went by fast. And unless you’re trying to change that through process and policy, you’re always going to be fightin’ the swamp,” he said.
This is where Greg Fischer’s quality management training could come in handy. “The main thing is, it teaches you how to think,” Fischer said, telling me with evident pride that he’d been considered a “master teacher” at CQM.
“It’s just kind of systematic thinking as opposed to just kind of showing up one day and throwing some crap against the wall (to) see what happens,” he said. Then he reached for a piece of paper. “I’ll take you one step further on this,” he said, sliding the sheet across the table. “Are you familiar with this concept of S-curves in business?”
“Not really,” I said.
By now Fischer really seemed to be enjoying himself. This was the mayor in Obi-Wan Kenobi mode. “Okay, so you’ve got...” — and here he drew a simple graph, with time on the horizontal axis and performance on the vertical axis. Then he drew something like this: ∫. “So when a business starts, it starts off with an idea. It usually struggles,” he said (the bottom of the ∫), “and then if it’s successful, it takes off and grows pretty rapidly (the steep middle part), and then once the market reaches a certain saturation point, it levels off (the plateau).”
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