Louisville’s Greg Fischer: A Mayor Takes Stock of His City
A proponent of data and performance analytics, the three-term mayor is equally invested in compassionate government.
Elected in 2011 after a successful career in business, Fischer, 64, is in the final year of his third term in office. Last month, he was at a brand-new community center in Beecher Terrace, a city neighborhood that is being completely rebuilt from the ground up. Residents were relocated during demolition and construction, and then invited to return as the new housing becomes available, a particular point of pride for the mayor.
Leaving the community center, Mayor Fischer pointed out past problems, and then touted the many solutions and accomplishments chalked up by his administration. During an interview with Governing, the conversation ricocheted from the Dalai Lama to the proliferation of bourbon bars downtown, to increasing the tree canopy, to the past injustice of urban renewal. “This is what being 12 years as mayor is all about,” he says. “A good mayor needs to be all in. We’ve still got seven months to go. There's a lot to do.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Governing: You devoted a fair amount of your last State of the City address to economic development projects. How is the economic recovery going at this point?
Greg Fischer: It's a very intentional strategy that we're deploying to get the daytime worker population back downtown. Evenings are [now] better than what they were before the pandemic. We're in contact with all the major employers, so that we understand what their situations are and what we can do to help get people back, because it's impacting our restaurants and our retailers. And then we're also looking at different strategies on how to redeploy what was once office space. People will still want office space. Just not as much.
Fischer: We were back to the normal Derby numbers, in terms of visitors and tax revenues. The Derby is important here locally, but it's also got national significance because it's a rite of spring. It's always been the world's biggest fashion show, and also a celebration of humanity. It was just great to have all that back in play. We use the Kentucky Derby as an economic development tool, bringing guests in every year for the event. We close a lot of business there. So it's been very helpful for us.
When I ran for office, I thought it was very important that we have a hospitality concept that would bring people here 365 days a year. There was a time when the city didn't really support and celebrate its bourbon heritage. Ninety-five percent of the world's bourbon comes from Kentucky. The other five percent is counterfeit. So we created a concept called “bourbonism,” which is focused on bourbon tourists and food tourists. That’s led to an additional 24 downtown hotels focused on bourbon tourism. Over 100 new hotels have been built since I've been mayor. The convention business is also increasing. We're trying to augment or replace the workers that are staying home, with tourists, conventions, activities and re-use of downtown space.
Governing: It’s been 20 years since Louisville and Jefferson County merged. What, ultimately, has been the benefit of the merger?
Fischer: It's been really helpful for the city and county because we now speak with one voice. In talking about economic development, it's a huge advantage when you're sitting in front of a prospect. We've combined our economic development efforts and our real estate and talent development efforts into one company, which we call “Louisville Forward,” which has been recognized eight years in a row as one of the premier economic development agencies in the country.
[The merger] simplifies the task of doing business with the city, and also aligns all of our public safety efforts as well. I think we were the last major city to merge city and county governments. Most every mayor would like to do that. But it's just really hard to combine these entrenched entities. It's been all about making Louisville an easier place to live in, and do business with, and get services from.
Fischer: We produce about $3 billion a year in tax revenue. It's all essentially collected in Frankfort, the state capital. We get about half of it back. As Louisville grows, it's good for the whole state. We need to build bridges with the rural legislators and make sure they understand that we are the economic engine of the state. Our friends on the other side of the aisle understand that they may not agree with everything that's going on in Louisville, but we’re the cash register. Let us grow.
As political issues get more and more tribalized, you're seeing companies make decisions on where they're going to locate based on policy, whether it be voting issues, LGBTQ rights or choice for women. These issues are going to become more acute over time. About 92 percent of the GDP of America comes from its metro areas. We're going through a transition in this country, and it's yet to be determined how it's going to work out.
Governing: Governing named you a Public Official of the Year in 2013, largely for your work on data and management. Has your interest in data continued since then?
Fischer: We have a strong mayor form of government. So that means, as mayor, you're going to figure out how to operate the city, what the strategic plan looks like, and how to do all of that in a very efficient manner. As a businessperson, I would always say, "show me the data." And then ask “what's the impact on the customer?”
I didn't know as much about elected office as I would later on, but I knew a lot about building high-performance organizations. That's where data became so important to us. And it turned out that we were a pioneer in a lot of this stuff.
We've continued to advance the use of data to drive innovation in some really sophisticated ways. All of this is now open sourced and online for the world to see. It's the way we do business. And it's the way that our teams are organized around our plans and our data. It has also, I think, really resonated with our technology community. We've been very intentional about quintupling the amount of tech workers that we have in our city. That's been an area that we've worked very hard on and have been quite successful. And that goes all the way down into our high schools. The focus on data and technology and open government has been critical to everything that we do.
Fischer: The summer of 2020 was a very difficult time for mayors all over the country, and certainly here too, with Breonna Taylor's death. But it gave us the opportunity to really understand everybody's perspective. When Breonna was killed here in our city, it really raised tensions. We became a national focal point for people that had points of view that they wanted to express. We were determined to protect people's First Amendment rights, and to protect order in the city as well. It was difficult for us because we prided ourselves on always leaning into equity.
What can we do to do better? How do we improve the police-community relationship? The community is the No. 1 asset of a police department. A strong trust between the two had been really challenged during the Breonna Taylor tragedy. What we did was call for a top to bottom review and a change of leadership in our police department. And then we started instituting significant reforms and adding another layer of accountability by creating a civilian review board. In 2020, and for about 18 months after that, we saw pretty significant attrition. But now our recruiting classes are starting to attract candidates again. We're a different kind of police department now.
America is at a crossroads with policing right now. And the old way of doing it is obviously not working. But it means changing policing in a lot of ways. We're doing that by taking some of the work off of our police. People expect police officers to be mental health counselors, domestic violence counselors and homelessness specialists. So we've created deflection models. When a call comes in to 911, we can determine if a police response is required or if a mental health counselor or a homelessness specialist would be more appropriate. We can take that type of work off of our police officers and have them focus on constitutional policing.
Fischer: No. This has been by far the most interesting, stimulating and rewarding job that I've had, because you can help people at scale. After I almost went bankrupt twice in the private sector, I had some pretty good fortune. And so, I asked myself, how can I do the most good? You can be a volunteer. You can be a philanthropist. Or you can really get in the game and run a city where you've got a lot of resources to help people do better. And in my business career, I always said, businesses are platforms for human potential to flourish. It's been a wonderful 12 years that I'm honored and grateful for, and I hope I can continue to help in some way.
Governing: What advice do you have for mayors in general? And your successor in particular?
Fischer: I say, to be a good mayor, you have to have the head of a CEO and the heart of a social worker. And building the right team is obviously important. You've got to understand how best to deploy your resources. As a chief executive, your major responsibilities are goal setting, resource allocation, leading with proper values, and then monitoring and diagnosing outcomes. Is what you're doing actually working? And if not, how do you change that? You change that through understanding the data, and then follow through with improvement and innovation.
Government is a service business. Some people say that government has got to be run more like a business. It is not a business. It is this hybrid of a business and an equity engine. Government exists to enable people to do more together than they could do alone. Government is about lifting everybody up so they can realize their full human potential. That's how we define compassion here in our city.