Greg Fischer was narrowly elected as mayor of Louisville in 2010, on the back of a successful career in business, but also a failed 2008 run for the U.S. Senate. The Democrat and Louisville native entered office in the midst of a recession, and despite being hampered by the economic climate firmly established himself as a popular figure in the Bluegrass, gaining re-election with great ease towards the end of last year and celebrating his second term inauguration on Jan. 5, 2015.
During Mayor Fischerâ€™s first four-year term, the city saw the creation of 22,000 new jobs â€“ the fourth fastest economic recovery for a city of Louisvilleâ€™s size in the country. Additionally, construction was funded and finished on the Southwest Regional Library in Valley Station, which expanded a small library into one that stands at 40,000 square feet and boasts a collection of over 120,000 books and 100 public computers with free Wi-Fi.
Ground was broken on the Ohio River Bridges Project and a landmark deal was struck for the construction of the downtown Omni Hotel, a structure that will be the third tallest building in the city, and will contain 200 apartments as well as a luxury hotel.
The Voice-Tribune caught up with Mayor Fischer to discuss the past four years and what he has up his sleeves for the next four, in a wide-ranging discussion.
You were sworn in on Jan 5, what were the emotions then and your reflections now on being sworn in for your second term?
Well, a couple of things. Firstly, itâ€™s completely different from four years ago. Four years ago was the first time, and we were still in a recession, as a country. The challenges were intense and the future was unclear. But over those four years weâ€™ve also built a great team here who now know what the obstacles are, and what kind of resources we need in a much more intimate way than four years ago. So itâ€™s nice going into your second term well into your stride, and really ready to succeed. Weâ€™ve established a really nice national and international reputation in the first term. So itâ€™s a good feeling knowing weâ€™re going to get a lot more done. But to a certain extent you can kind of reflect on the specialness of the moment.
Well itâ€™s a personal moment as well…
Right. But the first time youâ€™re elected, in November youâ€™re then taking office two months later, and you have to pull your team together, you have to understand the budget a lot better. We had a different setting too, which ended up being a great and beautiful ceremony that involved the community.
You mentioned you were hampered by the fact that we were in a recession in 2011. In spite of that, what were your biggest successes and failures as mayor?
Well, the biggest success was that our city was one of the first in the country to emerge from the recession. Since then weâ€™ve regained all the jobs, and gained a lot more. Weâ€™ve got a really good economic development strategy, our neighborhood activation activity is a lot more intense with our safe and healthy neighborhood activity. Where we need to do a lot more work is with the areas of the community that donâ€™t have as many resources, and face more challenges.
Are there any specific neighborhoods that come to mind?
Well, we stabilized the number of vacant and abandoned properties that we had in the city. When we started we had over 6,000 vacant and abandoned properties and about 80% of those are in west Louisville. So thatâ€™s been stabilized, but now weâ€™re looking for more investment in that part of town. At 18th and Broadway we will have some success with the new YMCA, and new Walmart going in there, so thatâ€™s a good jolt of activity.
In the Southwest part of the city weâ€™ve invested a lot this past term. In particular, there was the only large capital project we were able to pursue because of the tough economic climate. But we built the Southwest Regional Library. Looking ahead for this year, though, the Parklands at Floydâ€™s Fork come to mind.
There was obviously the recent announcement of the Omni Hotel.
These next four years are going to be a time of investment; both in terms of human investment and capital investment, and weâ€™ve been working on the Omni project for about two years and that is a transformational project for downtown
The Omni Hotel project is a tangible job creator, but do you feel that downtown is still less of a destination spot than other neighborhoods in the city? Is there more that can be done?
Well, there is always more that can be done, but the growth of downtown, in terms of momentum is significant now, and I would put its popularity up there with neighborhoods like The Highlands, Crescent Hill and St. Matthews. Those are the areas that have been growing strong and you can see that in the property values disproportionately rising in those areas. That being said, downtown is a big area, so one of the priorities that we have right now is downtown living. Part of the Omni project was the addition of 225 apartments on top of the hotel.
What do you think is the biggest misconception that people have about you as a person, and as a Mayor?
That would be different for different people (laughs). But I will answer this way, the mayor before me was mayor for a very, very long time and so it took a while for the city to get used to a different kind of mayor. Iâ€™m a business oriented, entrepreneurial mayor, but to be a good mayor I always say you need the head of a chief executive, but the heart of a social worker. So while people look at me as a business person, I see myself as someone who wants everyone in the community, regardless of what their neighborhood is, to succeed.
Youâ€™re still also the guy who operated salmon cranes in Kodiak, Alaska when you were a student in college right?
Yep, that shaped my life in an unpredictable way.
You think you could still use a crane?
Absolutely, and the cranes now are much easier to use than back then! The skill to being a good crane operator is being able to pick up a load without drama and place it without drama.
So you could give some tips to the guys building the Omni Hotel?
Well, I operated the crane on boats, so I had to deal with tidal activity and rough seas! But learning how to operate a crane is what enabled me to get a job in Alaska, and that allowed me to help pay for college, and helped pay for a trip around the world.
You spent a lot of time in Asia, correct?
I was there for around nine months.
Did that experience change you as a person?
It had a real major impact on my life. At first I was traveling by myself for 10 months, and you learn a lot when you spend that much time by yourself. That was in 1980-81, so there were not a lot of people traveling Asia back then, thus I got to experience a lot. That kind of experience stretches you as a person, which Iâ€™m all about. Learn something new ever yday, have an act of compassion everyday, have a new experience every day, and over your life that really adds up in your ability to see the world in broader ways. That ended up influencing who I married â€“ I have a great wife and four kids â€“ and ended up influencing the business I co-founded, and turning that into an international business. It also letâ€™s you see the bigger picture, and how the different cities around the world operate. We measure ourselves not in how we are doing compared to last year, but how are we doing compared to the best cities in the world.
With regards to the minimum wage, how do you see the situation changing after you signed off on a $9 limit?
One of the reasons why I wanted to have the cost of living adjustment in there was so we didnâ€™t have to come back to this again. The federal government has completely failed in relation to acting on a minimum wage. That would be the most obvious place for that to start. My reservation about pursuing a local minimum wage was the unintended consequences that can impact for places that donâ€™t have to pay the minimum wage. So that is a real-time economic issue. But the flip side to that is that the wage hasnâ€™t been increased in five or six years, so people already struggle when they are at the minimum wage. It needed to increase, and I felt that I was in a spot where I could increase it, but it wouldnâ€™t lead to too much job loss. I know some people disagree with that, but I know business cost structures well enough to know that businesses that have high cost of labor who compete with businesses outside of county lines will incur job losses. Itâ€™s why I signaled to the city council that I would veto at $10.10, and they needed to come back with something more reasonable.
As someone who himself went to school out of state [Vanderbilt] how do you face the challenge of keeping or drawing in young graduates and professionals to Louisville?
Not every city is everything for everybody. There are some cities that are so big that they offer, seemingly, everything, from an economic standpoint.
Whatâ€™s the biggest offering that Louisville can provide?
Well, I donâ€™t know that Louisville is the best place for someone who is young, and single, and wants to taste city living. So go to Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Hong Kong, London, and in three or four years some people may say, â€˜You know what, Iâ€™d like to start a family, or move to a place that has a reasonable cost of living.â€™ The problem with these luxury cities of course, is that you can live around them, but you canâ€™t really live in them. So is that what life is all about? To be really human, you need to live in a city like Louisville, so that you can have time to breathe, and explore who you are, without killing yourself in a rat race all the time. So you need to be at a point in your life when you have got the 24/7 adrenaline rush of a big city out of you. A lot of companies in high cost cities are saying that they should be in a place like Louisville, because they can either move their people here or hire people there just as good. So, those workers can have a life, buy a house for $150,000 that would cost $1 million somewhere else, and that company will, in turn, have a more productive workforce.
How pleased are you that there is going to be an introduction of body cameras on police officers?
Well, our pilot will be running in five or six months, and I think thatâ€™s really important. There are a few cities that are ahead of us on that.
Do you think itâ€™s needed in Louisville?
Itâ€™s needed everywhere, because it can take as little as one incident to trigger a significant problem in a city. And when you put cameras on police and theyâ€™re used properly reports of police abuse go down, because people know that what the police say happened is a truthful account. Cameras protect our citizens and they protect our police officers at the same time. One of the things thatâ€™s interesting to reflect on, is could a Ferguson, Missouri happen in Louisville? What weâ€™ve done here is create our Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods team, so that when there is a crisis in the city, and youâ€™re sitting down in front of the people involved, itâ€™s not the first time youâ€™ve looked at each other from across the table, or had dialogue with each other. Itâ€™s what I call â€œbuilding social muscle.â€ When tragedy takes place, how does your city respond? Do you come together? Do you fracture? So itâ€™s super important to be proactive in that sense.
Will there ever be an NBA team based in Louisville? And would you like one?
I never say never, and I never say always, but we would want to be in play if it were a tangible possibility. Clearly, the community would need to say that they support it. There is a lot of interest in professional sports, obviously, throughout the city.
What would you name the team?
(Laughs) I havenâ€™t spent that much time thinking about it. That is not the most bottleneck issue! (laughs). We were very supportive of getting a minor league soccer team [Louisville FC], and we want them to succeed, because if they succeed we could possibly be in line for an MLS team. So it will be interesting to see what kind of reaction we get to the soccer team.
Thoughts on legalized gambling?
I think itâ€™s a real shame that Kentucky loses gaming revenue to other states. The state is very stressed financially, so for our citizens who want to gamble, itâ€™s $500 million that could be here and filling all kinds of challenges here. It doesnâ€™t look like itâ€™s something thatâ€™s going to be addressed in this current legislative session, but itâ€™s something that I endorse.
If there was no need for bipartisanship, negotiation, politicking and compromise in four years what would you like to see in Louisville?
Well, youâ€™d see a great continued job recovery, but an economy thatâ€™s transitioning into being innovation-based in one of the economic clusters for which we feel we can either be the best in the world, or one of the best in the world. There are a couple of those, one is lifelong wellness and aging care, and others include advanced manufacturing, logistics and e-commerce, food and beverage and business services. If we get the type of talent that can be imported or come from our own education systems, thatâ€™s what companies want to see.
Also the areas of our town in which there is under-investment, youâ€™d see more investment, more residential activity. Youâ€™d also see a more compassionate city. Also, health is an issue; we need to be working on the physical health of the city. Tobacco abuse, while not as high as in other parts of the state, still needs to be reduced. Itâ€™s terrible and preventable. Obesity is improving, but is still a problem, as well. VT