Kentucky city doubles in size – overnight

Growth-hungry cities are watching Louisville closely as it merges with county in a bid to revitalize the area.

There's no population boom. No sudden influx of immigrants. On Jan. 6, when Louisville leapfrogs over several dozen communities to become the nation's 16th largest city, it will do so the old-fashioned way:

By merger.

Locally, residents hope that combining Jefferson County with Louisville will spur economic growth, bring better services, and streamline local government. Nationally, Louisville's experiment could ignite a wave of city-county consolidations not seen since the early 1970s.

Already, Rochester, N.Y., and Milwaukee, are taking a close look at the idea. And officials from Fresno, Calif.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Sarasota, Fla.; and others have come to Louisville to see for themselves. Some, like Buffalo, N.Y., are trying step-by-step consolidation of city and county departments.

"The move toward metropolitan governance is alive and well," says Bruce Katz, director of the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

For the moment, all eyes rest on Louisville.

Creating Greater Louisville

To outsiders, the city on the banks of the Ohio River may be synonymous with baseball (Louisville Slugger bats) or horse racing (the Kentucky Derby), boxing (birthplace of Muhammad Ali) or Kentucky Fried Chicken (the franchise's base). But Louisville itself is trying to figure out what kind of city it wants to be.

"We have a laboratory here," says Jerry Abramson, former Louisville mayor and a candidate for the new mayor's post. "We take a blank sheet of paper and design what local government in 2003 is going to look like."

Some things are already clear. Greater Louisville, as it will be called officially, will be bigger: from 256,000 residents (smaller than state rival Lexington, Ky.) to nearly 700,000 (on par with Austin, Texas). Within its own seven-county region, the consolidated city will sport two-thirds of the population and four-fifths of its jobs.

Its economic base will likely develop around its two main strengths: healthcare and logistics (as a main hub for UPS, it operates the world's 10th-largest cargo airport).

Education will also remain a priority. Already, the University of Louisville has bolstered its reputation by tripling the number of endowed chairs and professorships and pushing its faculty to compete for federal research dollars.

In terms of elementary and high school students, a privately-funded Brookings study of the region has refocused debate on school achievement.

The unknown

What's left unsettled is what the new city will look like in 20 years.

East of downtown, along Hurstbourne Freeway, long, low shopping areas and office complexes run on either side of the four-lane highway. The suburban-looking area is home to a classic problem: traffic jams.

"Come rush hour, no one wants to go down Hurstbourne," says Bill Howard, a lieutenant with the Jeffersontown Fire District. From 4 to 6:15 p.m., the traffic can quadruple driving times.

According to the Brookings study, this kind of growth is thinning out the population and making it less unique – and desirable – for the kind of creative workers the new city will need. From 1982 to 1997, for example, the county's population rose less than 5 percent while the amount of land developed grew almost 60 percent. "If they just become another Atlanta or Nashville, where growth is basically blown out, I think over time they'll be unable to achieve their competitive potential," says Mr. Katz of Brookings.

But Louisville's historic downtown along the Ohio River is also blossoming. One-of-a-kind shops have moved into the West Main Historical District, the second largest collection of cast-iron storefronts outside New York City's Soho district. The city is moving toward the third phase of its river-front development. And people are moving back downtown.

"What I've seen in the last two years has been astonishing," says Lynn Winter, a local restaurateur and pioneer downtown resident. "People are getting out of their cars and they're walking around downtown. And that creates a whole different dynamic."

Whether the heart of Louisville stays downtown or moves to newly suburbanized areas remains for its residents to decide. So far, few seem to worry. "I don't think sprawl is a big problem here," says Paul Coomes, an economics professor at the University of Louisville. Unlike either Atlanta or Nashville, "we haven't had the big growth rates."

Local developers actually prefer the diversity. "All of a sudden, you can sell downtown, you can sell new suburban locations, you can deal with older industrial land," says Chuck Kavanaugh, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Louisville. "We've got it all."

Another unsettled question: How well will the new government run? Ever since voters approved consolidation last November, bureaucrats have been grinding through the details of the merger. The transition team has addressed everything from whose form to use for building inspections to accounting systems to, well, roosters. (The city has an antirooster ordinance; the county does not).

But beyond the absolute necessities, the big decisions will be left to the new mayor and metro council taking office Jan. 6. That's unusual, points out Stephen Haag Jr., who codirects the consolidation effort. While most places have merged departments ahead of time, and only later consolidated the elected heads, Louisville is merging the heads then deciding what the new government will look like.

That vagueness troubles some officials. "If you're going to change the form of government, you need a compelling reason," says County Commissioner Darryl Owens. But "we don't know what it's going to look like. We don't know how much it's going to cost. The reality is you don't have any specifics."

One likely trend is a loss of political clout for the city's African-Americans. Blacks now occupy a third of the seats on the current city council and one of three seats on the county commission (which Mr. Owens holds). But on the new metro council, they'll win less than a quarter in next month's elections, observers say.

On the other hand, consolidation has bolstered the city's self-confidence. And streamlining its bureaucracy will help the city move more nimbly when opportunities arise, supporters argue.

"When you have two people who believe they are in charge of the same community, sometimes they're in sync; sometimes [they] clash," says Abramson. "Most of the time, their staffs play games."

As the favorite to win November's election for the new mayor's post, Abramson plans to seize the political momentum and consolidate agencies and operations quickly if he's elected. Although such decisions are fraught with political risks, he relishes the challenge, he says. "It's very rare in one's life to be [present] at the moment of creation."

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