Todd Blue

Todd Blue

(Editor’s note: Todd Blue sent a post expanding on points he made in an interview last Friday. You can read the original story here, which explained why the businessman is leaving Louisville for Houston. Blue Ltd. is the holding company for all his businesses, including Cobalt Ventures in Louisville and Auto Group Texas, which includes indiGO Auto Group, with exotic car dealerships in Texas and California.)

By Todd Blue

For the record: I was asked what I thought Louisville has done “wrong” in the recent past (10 years, plus or minus) in its economic development policy and what it could do better going forward.

A) I have never claimed to be an authority.

B) I have nothing but the highest hopes that my original hometown can accomplish great things (like similar-sized cities have done) … but Louisville seems to be trailing and falling further behind.

C) At the core of who I am, I think people and societies only move forward by discussing uncomfortable things and pushing for change. If things are stagnant or if too much power is in the hands of a public institution (or institutions in general), we need a community conversation.

The Future:

In the second interview I had on this subject last week, I told television reporters that the city of Louisville created the potential three years ago to restart itself when it elected the best mayor we have elected in 50 years (and maybe ever) in Greg Fischer. For whatever reason, the TV station did not report this. I feel strongly about this, and I wanted to make sure I re-stated this for the record.

Greg has a selfless love for this city, doesn’t need anyone (for their money) and comes from a tremendously successful business background, which this city desperately needs. All of these things give this city a chance to begin again and learn from someone who competed and won. His second term could be the chance (along with infrastructure improvements — like the two bridges) to finally jump start sustainable privately owned business creation and development in Louisville.

The Past:

I also said I felt we have contributed a disproportionate amount of our city and state funding and – more importantly – attention to The University of Louisville. I went on to explain that while U of L’s campus has grown physically, the city has not kept pace with similar cities and our privately owned businesses have declined (maybe not so coincidentally) at the same time. I also said we (Greater Louisville Inc. in particular) have previously built a culture and a strategy that is institutional based, not based on individuals. This is dangerous.

I challenged the reporters, emphasizing that we should question public over-funding to, and excessive focus on, a college because that’s NOT synonymous with successful economic development for this or any other city, especially in the proportions that have occurred in this community.

If we desire to be a true commercial center for business growth, development and talent retention, U of L cannot be our driver. It clearly isn’t working.

My point was that it is a healthy exercise to step back and ask what might be broken. The intention was not a blame game. It was an idea-sharing exercise to speak the unspoken and see what happens.

Jim Ramsey & The Billboard:

I did not mean to be disrespectful toward Jim Ramsey. He is one of the most successful university presidents (defined by fundraising for his school) who comes to mind. Fundraising is his job. Again, Mr. Ramsey is to be praised by U of L and its students (at least while they are in school or until they need to look for a job in Louisville) for what he has done for their campus and other university-owned/operated assets, and especially foundation fundraising.

The billboard reference (“I’ve never been to a city our size and seen so many billboards with the college president’s face on them. His face is everywhere. He’s like Putin.”) was made only because it’s such a symbolic image of what might be wrong: U of L’s tremendous fundraising success is not necessarily aligned with the success of the city.

From U of L’s point of view (and fiduciary responsibility) this isn’t a problem for them because the executive branch at U of L is doing their job. They deserve an A+ for fundraising!

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But I’ve seen something like seven billboards with President Ramsey’s image. I suggest universities celebrate their students, NOT their presidents

U of L has a president with one of the longest guaranteed contracts for a public official in the state and maybe in the country, other than for a coach. Again, I don’t blame him. He is maximizing his university – his brand – and has raised an enormous (record) amount of money for his school, which is his job.

He and athletic director Tom Jurich have been incredibly successful. However, it is important that the city of Louisville does not lose sight of what defines success for the city, versus for U of L.

U of L promoting (over promoting) itself as the economic engine for the city is incorrect. More importantly, it is not working. Public money and focus benefits the economic development of U of L, not the city.

An example of why this is a problem is the Nucleus development. These publicly funded office buildings were supposed to be research buildings. Instead, Nucleus and U of L developments such as Shelbyhurst used public money to build office buildings – not research buildings – to compete with private-sector developers.

In the end, commercial office buildings were built with public dollars when private developers could have done the same. The city/state lost twice. Less research and fewer privately owned businesses.

There are many businesspeople in Louisville who feel this way but cannot speak to this because they have to live and operate – and compete – with U of L. Heck, maybe they are scared U of L will pull their season tickets.

I encourage Louisville to start with a fresh perspective. This has been hard in the past, maybe because Louisvillians have not been conditioned to question things.

Ultimately, let us not be confused and remember which is which: U of L is not the city and the city is not U of L. Until Louisvillians as a community do this, they should not complain when they wake up asking, “Why isn’t this city growing?”