This morning at about 10 a.m., Doug Cobb tweeted, “GLI 1997 to 2014 RIP Thanks to all who helped build it, and shame on those who tore it down.”
Entrepreneurial legend Cobb, Greater Louisville Inc.’s first president and CEO, then his successor Steve Higdon, built GLI into what was only a few years ago Kentucky’s largest and most powerful economic development machine and business lobby.
With 3,000 business members at one time, a peak budget of $11 million and the clout to shepherd city-county merger, it was recognized twice as the top chamber in the United States by American Chamber of Commerce Executives.
Today, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer cut the million-dollar IV drip to a GLI that’s now on life support after plunging membership, leadership vacuums and extravagant spending under former GLI CEO Joe Reagan. Fisher’s decision to cut ties to GLI by July 1 and create an expanded city office of economic development under Mary Ellen Wiederwohl, deputy chief of staff and chief of strategic initiatives, instantly gives him and future mayors total control over business attraction efforts.
It also essentially assigns GLI to the dust bin of Louisville’s economic-development history.
Fischer announced the reorganization of Louisville’s economic development effort as merely “adapting with what the times are,” adapting to take advantage of new realities, playing down the radical change in course.
But in a few minutes this morning, Fischer undid the landmark 1997 merger that created GLI. The Louisville Chamber of Commerce, Greater Louisville Economic Development Partnership and the county Office for Economic Development merged into GLI, which was designed to be Louisville’s main business-attraction agency, as well as the entity driving pro-business policy both locally and in Frankfort.
In a press conference, Fischer said this move is about bringing greater efficiency and integration – and far less friction – to business attraction.
City officials see two trends – the convergence of the business deal and the real estate deal, and the cultivation of talent as key factors in business attraction. The city that can provide the talent, real estate and intangibles such as sense of place, wins, Fischer said. So the goal is to combine all those efforts under one economic strategy dubbed Louisville Forward.
Louisville Forward is envisioned as a one-stop, “full-spectrum” effort ranging from job attraction to land procurement to cutting through red tape.
From the announcement this morning:
The city’s real estate development arm, called Develop Louisville, will focus on the full range of land development activities, including planning and design, vacant and abandoned properties initiatives, advanced planning, housing programs, permits and licensing, land acquisition, and development partnerships.
In an interview this afternoon, former GLI CEO Cobb said his tweet was not aimed at Fischer, in whom he has confidence: “I don’t blame him for this.”
“Someone needed to rescue GLI and Greg stepped in,” Cobb said. The city taking over economic development “is the better outcome in the short run” he added, as opposed to allowing GLI to stay on the same course.
“In the longer run, I’m not sure that’s the answer, but we’ll see.” Cobb predicted economic development will do well under Fischer, “but who knows who the next mayor will be?”
Fischer acknowledged the trigger for the GLI announcement is his upcoming budget speech, as insiders told us earlier this month.
The move is, as officials like to say, “revenue neutral.” The city will pay for the expanded Louisville Forward initiative, which will have a total of 200 employees, by ending its $950,000 economic development contract with GLI.
GLI will retain city contracts for research and other work.
At GLI, the end of the economic development agreement with the city cost the jobs of six more employees for a total workforce of less than 30, down from 46 last September as the agency melted down. They include Daryl Snyder, GLI’s longtime vice president of economic development, and James Reddish, vice president of workforce development.
Fischer said Snyder and other GLI employees are welcome to apply for Louisville Forward positions, but will not transfer.
At a follow-on GLI press conference, Chairman Kerry Stemler said,”Nothing about today was unexpected.” Stemler described the end of its economic-development function and city revenue (about 13 percent of GLI’s total budget) as simply marking the beginning of “GLI 2.0.”
GLI “is and will be a leadership organization, focused strongly on membership,” he said.
However, it was only last October when now departed CEO Craig Richard told Business First GLI would focus on economic development. Richard was fired in January.
Several insiders told IL they believe GLI will remain relevant because of EnterpriseCorp, its successful program focused on startups and entrepreneurs. One source contends if GLI reinvents itself as completely autonomous and self-supporting, it will emerge as the independent voice for the business community, untainted by political ties to the city.
But former GLI CEO Steve Higdon said the organization’s recent leadership had transformed GLI from a “loud and trusted voice on Kentucky issues” to being a non-player, “a 180-degree turn in influence.”
That leadership “returned us to where we were before the merger” that created GLI, Higdon said.
“I think it’s a devastating blow to Louisville’s business community.”