Louisville Achieves Perestroika

NEAL R. PEIRCE

March 09, 1992|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY. — Louisville, Kentucky -- Here's a community, in the midst of a biting national recession, that thinks it's fixed some of its bad old habits and found a way to keep its head above water -- maybe even grow some.

Reversing a dramatic loss in manufacturing jobs in the early '80s, the Louisville market area in the last five years has been gaining an average of 10,000 jobs a year. Residents' real earnings have grown 9 percent in the last three years.

In the mid-'70s there was public uproar over school busing; in the early '80s, Louisville got dubbed ''Strike City'' for its contentious labor relations. Now its schools are getting hailed as some of the best among American cities, and labor relations are mill-pond quiet.

How did Louisville get so lucky? No silver bullet, no single solution. Many efforts came together to create a more cohesive and cooperative city and region that is a thought-provoking model for communities that feel they've slipped their moorings, and lost control in this recession.

Louisville claims it's achieved a kind of restructuring, or perestroika, of its economy. In the words of the University of Louisville's Paul Coomes: ''The city is now known more for artificial-heart surgery than for smokestacks, a world air hub for United Parcel Service than for barge and rail traffic.''

Politics were part of the transformation. In a community that had gone through two rather bitter city-county merger fights, Louisville's Mayor Jerry Abramson and the Jefferson County Executive Harvey Sloane cut a deal to share their wage taxes under a negotiated formula. Result: fewer fights over locations of new or relocated businesses.

On the industrial front, a broad coalition decided radical action was necessary to save the area's Ford plant from extinction. A worker-retraining program was put together with state and local government aid. And then the governor, mayor, county judge, senior Ford plant management and local United Auto Workers leaders went together to Ford headquarters in Detroit to argue that the Louisville plant (which once, ironically, produced the Edsel) could be made the Ford system's most competitive.

The result: Ford kept the plant, invested $260 million in it and trained almost the entire work force in sophisticated new manufacturing techniques. Now continuous programs of retraining -- including a basic general-education degree to the basics of a master's degree -- are available at the plant. Workers participate heavily.

The plant makes the husky new 4-wheel drive Explorer, the Ranger pickup truck, and -- amazingly -- a vehicle that the Japanese Mazda firm buys and calls the Navajo.

Sitting at a table next to the assembly line and listening to the Ford, union and local government representatives boast about the plant's training and productivity, one gets the feeling of watching a new approach Americans will need to do business in the future -- a cooperative spirit, based on a mutual desire to avoid industrial rout, that has replaced adversarial ways.

On education, there's been an almost total flip-flop from the bitterness and mediocrity that plagued the schools after the court-ordered 1974 merger of the overwhelmingly black Louisville and mostly white Jefferson County schools.

Much of the credit apparently goes to a soft-spoken, understated school superintendent, Don Ingwerson. He set up model training procedures for teachers, pared the central bureaucracy and middle management, and gave individual schools wide latitude to set up ''magnet'' programs and shape their own curriculums.

Business got behind the school reforms, with 700 school-business partnerships and $40 million of aid since 1980. Corporations helped buy enough computers so that in 1994, the first class trained on computers from kindergarten through high school will graduate. The next project is to buy laptop computers for the kids to work on at home.

Louisville also adopted a form of the so-called ''Boston Compact,'' intended to cut the dropout rate in return for promises of training and jobs after graduation. The compact failed in Boston when schools failed to improve student performance. But in Louisville the Chamber of Commerce president, Malcolm Chancey, boasts ''the school system upheld its end of the bargain.''

No one should believe Louisville is a nirvana. Last year it had more than 11,000 homeless men, women and children. One in four children in Jefferson County lives below the poverty line.

But mostly, the community seems to be on target -- and cares about a shared future. In a firm but polite way, government, industry, unions and the schools all seem to be holding each other mutually accountable. If it can be done in a city and region with a history as adversarial as Louisville's, it ought to be possible anywhere.

Neal R. Peirce writes on state and urban affairs.

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