Friday, June 28, 2013

It’s Happening in Possibility City

By Jonathan Miller, Project Associate.

I recently had the chance to visit Louisville, KY to get a sense for the city and the economic development being spearheaded by the Greater Louisville Partnership (GLI). The moment I arrived at the Atlanta MARTA station, I knew things were happening in Louisville. The first sign I saw once I got off the train was an advertisement for Bourbon Country, inviting me to come to the city. Even though I was already on my way, the invite was still very enticing. Got to love traveling to the bourbon capital of the world for work!

Bourbon is not just a drink in Louisville. The spirit represents a heritage, but is by no means living in the past. New craft distilleries, such as the newly announced Peerless Distilling Co., are popping up in Louisville, complementing many of the older and well-established distillers. By choosing to locate in the city, these establishments are adding more stops to the Urban Bourbon Trail, an extension of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Establishments that have the prestige of being on the trail offer at least 50 different bourbons to thirsty trailblazers. Tasting and distilling are only two of activities around bourbon. Suppliers of distilling equipment, such as copper stills, also call Louisville home. The increasing craft distillery ecosystem is also manifest in the Distilled Spirits Epicenter, which offers classes for aspiring distillers and in conjunction with Flavorman (a local beverage development company), the Epicenter offers pre-production, flavor development, and bottling capabilities to new entrepreneur distillers. 

The spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship is also alive and well in sectors beyond bourbon. One of Louisville’s key clusters is the Lifelong Wellness and Aging cluster. Home to headquarters of key players in home health and aging services, such as Humana and Atria, the city is well-positioned for the new economic realities that will emerge as the American population ages. Specific aging technology is being accelerated through the Innovate LTC accelerator, which is a part of Nucleus, the University of Louisville’s economic development and technology commercialization arm. Other key parts of the entrepreneurial ecosystem include Enterprise CORP, a branded segment of GLI, which works with both early and late-stage startups to help find appropriate buckets of funding and acquire the right talent. The demand for services from the entrepreneurial community is apparent as the city went from zero accelerators to five in less than three years. Further, the city was recently ranked as the third-best city for young entrepreneurs by Under30CEO behind Austin and San Francisco…that’s not bad company! 

Speaking of companies, Louisville is home to major divisons of some of the most recognized and iconic American manufacturing and logistics companies. The manufacturing sector, anchored by Ford Motor Company, Raytheon, and the GE Appliance Park, is on the upswing with employment in computer and electronic manufacturing, electrical equipment and appliance manufacturing, and transportation equipment manufacturing showing positive gains in the aftermath of the Great Recession. The University of Louisville is also a player in the manufacturing sector as it is a flagship university for 3-D printing and additive manufacturing. We toured the Rapid Prototyping Center and my mind was blown – what’s next, printing human organs? Oh, wait, they are doing that too. 

The presence of UPS Worldport, the largest automated package handling facility in the world, underscores the central location of Louisville (80 percent of the world is accessible within 48 hours from Louisville ). Turning over 130 aircraft daily, Worldport also proves to be strategic to other companies with strong logistical needs in areas such as e-commerce, re-commerce, and rapid return and repair. Major companies like Amazon, Geek Squad, and Zappos all have signiifcant warehouse facilities nearby. Importantly, UPS is not just moving packages, but they are making investments in the regional workforce. Through the Metropolitan College program, UPS is paying tuition for employees in their Next Day Air operations for pursuing degrees at University of Louisville and Jefferson County Technical College. Even if the degree doesn’t lead to additional opportunities at UPS, through it partners, the company will help place graduates in other businesses. Other large companies such as Humana are also leveraging the Metropolitan College for their employees. Workforce investment is coming not just from public dollars, but the private sector is stepping up. 

The importance of a skilled and competitive workforce is not lost on GLI or on the greater business community. Workforce, as we were told numerous times, is economic development. From a Market Street perspective, no truer words have been spoken. Whether it’s convening reunions of expatriate Lousivillians in other markets, connecting interns to local employers, acquainting newcomers with all the city has to offer, supporting international talent retention and acquisition, incorporating career academies into public schools, or seeking to increase the number of adults with a secondary degree (55,000 more degrees by 2020), GLI and its partners are waging a competitive and aggressive campaign for talented people. 

All of these components and many more are coalescing at an important point in time. As GLI begins to think about economic development over the next five years, it will be important to ensure that leaders from these diverse assets are reading form the same playbook and executing the same plays. Communicating wins and being honest about community challenges must take priority over clinging to the status quo. After all, the confident grittiness (and healthy irreverence) that has propelled the city to this point is underlying the push to elevate the community to compete at the highest level. Rather than tying themselves exclusively to bourbon, horse racing, or another singularity, there is widespread belief that if you can think of it, it should and will happen in Louisville. Welcome to Possibility City.